Correcting Recent Reporting on Offshore Flaring in Guyana

Recent reporting misrepresented SkyTruth data.

We’re always glad to have conservation-minded groups and individuals use our flaring maps, but we would like to correct some errors in how our data was interpreted in two recent articles in the Stabroek News concerning natural gas flaring from an ExxonMobil-owned vessel, the Liza Destiny, anchored off the coast of Guyana. 

In early June, 2020, the Guyana Marine Conservation Society (GMCS) contacted SkyTruth to see if we could help monitor natural-gas flaring from the Liza Destiny. The Liza Destiny had mechanical issues that required it to continuously flare, and GMCS wanted to be able to verify the flaring that ExxonMobil was reporting.

This isn’t a request that SkyTruth can normally help with, but the unique circumstances surrounding the Liza Destiny allowed us to provide GMCS with some meaningful data. Our global flaring map is a visualization of flaring events detected around the world, every day, using satellite data. The source of our data is the Earth Observation Group, which identifies flaring based on measurements of brightness and temperature captured by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites. Due to the low level of detail of these images (each pixel represents a spot on the ground about 750 meters across), we usually can’t pinpoint flaring to a specific source such as an individual oil or gas well. However, since there were no other flaring vessels near the Liza Destiny, we could confidently assign all flaring events within the satellite’s accuracy to this vessel. 

In mid-July, GMCS asked for an update containing the most recent data, which we provided by way of this document. The ensuing article in Stabroek News on July 25, 2020, erroneously claimed that our data showed the Liza Destiny was flaring from June 27 through July 7, a period when ExxonMobil reported to the Guyana EPA that there was no flaring because the vessel was undergoing maintenance.

Contrary to what the article suggests, the data SkyTruth provided did not contradict ExxonMobil. Our data did not show flaring on these dates, with the exception of June 28. It’s important to note that the lack of flaring in our data for that time period doesn’t conclusively prove there was no flaring, because clouds can block the satellites’ ability to “see” flares. 

And none of this is to imply that there are not legitimate concerns about the persistent, long-term flaring at this vessel documented in the data we shared with GMCS. 

Fracking in Suburbia

What do you do when big oil moves in next door?

Karen Speed’s new house in Windsor, Colorado was supposed to be a peaceful retirement home. Now she plans to move.

Patricia Nelson wanted her son Diego to grow up the way she did – far from the petrochemical plants surrounding their home in Louisiana. So she moved back to Greeley, Colorado to be close to her family. Then she learned about the drilling behind Diego’s school.

Shirley Smithson had enjoyed her quiet community for years, riding her horse through her neighbor’s pastures, watching the wildlife, and teaching at local schools. When she learned that oil wells would be popping up down the street, she was in denial at first, she says. Then she took action. 

These women shared their stories with a group of journalists and others attending the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) 2019 meeting in Fort Collins, Colorado last month. Fort Collins sits right next to Weld County – the most prolific county in Colorado for oil and gas production and among the most prolific in the entire United States. There, hydraulic fracturing (mostly for oil) has boomed, along with a population surge that is gobbling up farmland and converting open space into subdivisions. Often, these two very different types of development occur side-by-side. 

“We moved [into our house] in September, 2014,” Karen Speed told me, “and by the third week of January 2015, boy, I regretted building that house.” That was the week she learned that Great Western Oil and Gas Company, LLC, was proposing to put a well pad between two neighborhoods; and one of those neighborhoods was hers. When residents complained, she said, the company moved the site across a road and into a valley. “Which really isn’t the right answer,” Speed said. “Not in my backyard attitude? No – not in my town.” The well pad now sits next to the Poudre River and a bike path according to Speed. “People I know no longer ride there. They get sick,” she said. “One guy I know gets nosebleeds. He had asthma already and gets asthma attacks after riding.“

Well pads in neighborhoods are not uncommon throughout parts of Colorado’s Front Range. Weld County alone has an estimated 21,800 well pads and produces roughly 88% of Colorado’s oil. SkyTruth’s Flaring Map reveals a high concentration of flaring sites occurring in that region. This industrial activity occurs within residential areas and farmland despite the fact that people living near fracking sites in Colorado complain of bloody noses, migraines, sore throats, difficulty breathing, and other health problems according to Nathalie Eddy, a Field Advocate with the nonprofit environmental group Earthworks.   

Image 1. ImageMethane flaring locations from oil and gas wells in Weld County, CO. Image from SkyTruth’s Annual Flaring Volume Estimates from Earth Observation Group.

 

And then there was the explosion. Two years after Speed moved into her new home, on December 22, 2017, her house shook when a tank exploded at Extraction Energy’s Stromberger well pad four miles away. “When it exploded it really rocked the town,” she said. More than a dozen fire departments responded to the 30-foot high flames. “It went from 8:45 in the evening until the following morning before they could recover and get out of that space,” Speed recalls. According to a High Country News story, workers raced around shutting down operations throughout the site — 19 wells in all plus pipelines, tanks, trucks and other industrial infrastructure  — to prevent oil, gas, and other chemicals from triggering more explosions. Roughly 350 houses sat within one mile of the site and many more were within shaking range. One worker was injured. Dispatcher recordings released by High Country News reveal how dangerous the situation was, and how local fire departments were unprepared for an industrial fire of that magnitude.

That explosion occurred the very night Patricia Nelson returned home from a long day at the District Court in Denver. Nelson has been part of a coalition of public interest groups – including the NAACP, the Sierra Club, Wall of Women, and Weld Air and Water – that sued the Colorado agency responsible for overseeing oil and gas production in the state, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, for approving permits for 24 wells behind her son Diego’s school.  The company that would drill those wells was the same company overseeing the site that exploded – Extraction Energy.

Under Colorado law, oil and gas wells can be as close as 500 feet from a home and 1,000 feet from a school. Extraction’s new wells would be just over that limit and less than 1,000 feet from the school’s playing fields. Although the court hadn’t yet ruled, the company began construction on the site a few months later, in February 2018, and began drilling the wells that May. Ultimately, the District Court and the Appeals Court upheld the permits. Oil wells now tower over the Bella Romero Academy’s playing fields and the surrounding neighborhood of modest homes.

Smithson once taught at Bella Romero and worries about the kids. “When you have noise pollution and light pollution and dust and methane and all the things that come with having oil and gas production going on, kids are impacted physically. Their lungs aren’t developed…their immune systems aren’t totally developed and they are picking all this up,” she said. She has tried to mobilize the community but has been frustrated by the intimidation many parents feel. “This is a community without a voice,” she said. Bella Romero Academy is roughly 87% students of color, most of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. “There are kids from Somalia, from war camps” attending the school, Smithson said. “They have trauma from the top of their head to their toes. They’re not going to speak up.” Both Smithson and Nelson pointed out that immigrants – whether from Somalia or Latin America – are unlikely to speak out because they fear retaliation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Moreover, some parents work for energy companies. They fear losing their jobs if they oppose an oil site near the school.

 In fact, according to Smithson, Nelson, and Speed, Extraction Energy came to Bella Romero because it expected few parents would resist: The company originally proposed these wells adjacent to the wealthier Frontier Academy on the other side of town, where the student body is 77% white. Extraction moved the wells to Bella Romero after an outcry from the school community. This kind of environmental injustice isn’t unusual, and it generated attention from major media outlets, including the New York Times and Mother Jones. You can see how close the wells are to the school in this clip from The Daily Show (and on the SkyTruth image below).

Image 2: Extraction Energy’s facking site near Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, CO. Image by SkyTruth.

 

SkyTruth has resources to help residents, activists, and researchers address potential threats from residential fracking. SkyTruth’s Flaring Map covers the entire world, and users can see flaring hotspots in their region – where energy companies burn off excess methane from drilling operations into the air — and document trends in the volume of methane burned over time. The SkyTruth Alerts system can keep people in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Pennsylvania, West Virginia up-to-date on new oil and gas permits, and new activities in their area of interest.  

 We know that residents and researchers using these kinds of tracking tools can have major impact. Johns Hopkins University researchers used SkyTruth’s FrackTracker program, which identified the location of fracking sites in Pennsylvania, to document health impacts in nearby communities. Those impacts included increases in premature births and asthma attacks. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan cited this information in his decision to ban fracking in his state. Those interested in collaborating with SkyTruth on similar projects should contact us.

Photo 1. Pump jacks at Extraction Energy’s Rubyanna site in Greeley, CO. Photo by Amy Mathews.

 

Although Colorado activists have had limited success so far, this past year did bring some positive changes. The Colorado General Assembly passed SB 181, which directs the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to prioritize public health, safety, welfare, and the environment over oil and gas development. The new law also allows local governments to regulate the siting of oil and gas facilities in their communities and set stricter standards for oil and gas development than the state. Colorado agencies are still developing regulations to implement these new provisions.

 Improvements in technology could help as well.  The same day the SEJ crew met with concerned residents, a spokeswoman with SRC Energy explained the state of the art operations at their Golden Eagle pad in Eaton, Colorado. That technology is designed to mitigate impacts on the surrounding community and includes a 40-foot high sound wall, a water tank on site to pump water from a nearby farm (which reduces truck traffic), and electric pumps (to reduce emissions), among other features. Still, the fear of being surrounded by industrial sites remains for many residents.

Photo 2. SRC Energy’s Golden Eagle Pad, Eaton, CO. Photo by Amy Mathews.

 

In the meantime, Karen Speed is starting to look elsewhere for a new home. Shirley Smithson has decided she’s not going to let an oil company ruin her life. And Patricia Nelson will continue to fight for her family.

 “I think about moving all the time,” Nelson told the group of journalists, her voice cracking.  “But my whole family lives here and I don’t feel I can leave them behind… My sister has five children and drives to Denver for work every day…. I have cousins with kids at this school and family friends. Really, moving isn’t an option for me.”

New Oil and Gas Flaring Data Available

Updated data means anyone can see where, and how much, natural gas is being flared in their area.

SkyTruth has updated its Annual Flare Volume map to include 2017 and 2018 data. We first launched the map in 2017 to provide site specific estimates of the annual volume of gas flared during oil and gas production worldwide.

What is flaring?

Flaring is the act of burning off excess natural gas from oil wells when it can’t economically be stored and sent elsewhere. Flaring is also used to burn gases that would otherwise present a safety problem. But flaring from oil wells is a significant source of greenhouse gases. The World Bank estimated that 145 billion cubic meters of natural gas were flared in 2018; the equivalent of the entire gas consumption of Central and South America combined. Gas flaring also can negatively affect wildlife, public health, and even agriculture.

What can I do?

SkyTruth’s map allows users to search the data by virtually any geographic area they’re interested in, then easily compare and download flare volume totals from 2012 through 2018 to observe trends. In addition, it separates flaring into upstream (flaring of natural gas that emerges when crude oil is brought to the Earth’s surface), downstream oil (refineries) and downstream gas (natural gas processing facilities). Residents, researchers, journalists and others concerned about gas emissions in their city or study area can easily determine the sources of the problem using the latest data available, and how much gas has been flared.

VIIRS Satellite Instrument and the Earth Observation Group

The data we use in the SkyTruth map is a product of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) satellite instrument, which produces the most comprehensive listing of gas flares worldwide. VIIRS data has moved to a new home this year at the Earth Observation Group in the Colorado School of Mines’ Payne Institute for Public Policy. SkyTruth also uses the VIIRS nightfire data in its popular flaring visualization map.

Thanks to the Earth Observation Group for continuing to make the nightfire data freely available to the public! They have authored the following papers for those interested in the VIIRS instrument and how the flare volume is calculated.

Elvidge, C. D., Zhizhin, M., Hsu, F -C., & Baugh, K. (2013).VIIRS nightfire: Satellite pyrometry at night. Remote Sensing 5(9), 4423-4449.

Elvidge, C. D., Zhizhin, M., Baugh, K. E, Hsu, F -C., & Ghosh, T. (2015). Methods for global survey of natural gas flaring from Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite Data. Energies, 9(1), 1-15.

Elvidge, C. D., Bazilian, M. D., Zhizhin, M., Ghosh, T., Baugh, K., & Hsu, F. C. (2018). The potential role of natural gas flaring in meeting greenhouse gas mitigation targets. Energy Strategy Reviews, 20, 156-162.

SkyTruth Alerts: When We Know, You Know

Key Takeaways:

  1. SkyTruth is looking for new sources for the environmental alerts we send out.
  2. Since relaunching Alerts in December, 2018, we’ve expanded Oil & Gas permitting to include West Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Utah. We’ve also added pollution alerts for Florida, New Mexico and New York.
  3. We rely on our users to let us know about potential new sources for Alerts. Email your ideas to info@skytruth.org.

Introduction

Where do you start if you want to monitor the environment in an area that’s special to you? How do you find useful data? You might have a specific issue in mind and you suspect there’s relevant data online if you could only find it. Data.gov alone contains 252,892 datasets last time you checked, and much of that’s related to the environment.

You could spend days researching online datasets, and when you find something relevant figure out how to navigate the website to pull out the data you need while somehow filtering for your Area of Interest (AOI). Repeat daily.

Or, you could register for a SkyTruth Alerts account, outline and save your AOI, then go live your life while we do the heavy lifting.

Example of an Alerts email.

SkyTruth Alerts was built in 2012, originally as an in-house tool for our staff to automate receiving notifications of incidents reported to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center (NRC). The NRC is a federal emergency call center that fields initial reports for pollution and railroad incidents. They make updates available usually once a week, which we then download and add to our database. SkyTruth Alerts was soon thereafter made available to the public and expanded to include Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Permitting events, which we “scrape” from PA’s Dept. of Environmental Protection website several times a day. SkyTruth makes Alerts available to anyone, and at no charge, for the purpose of providing access to tools, data and satellite imagery that environmentalists otherwise wouldn’t have. 

In 2018, Alerts was given a facelift and SkyTruth began looking for additional datasets that would help subscribers monitor their AOIs. We’ve since expanded Oil & Gas permitting to include West Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Utah. We’ve also added pollution alerts for Florida, New Mexico and New York.

Alerts In the Big Picture

Alerts is an environmental monitoring platform. In addition to receiving incident emails, users also have access to satellite imagery, relevant map layers, and the ability to annotate and share map views. Alerts is not a research platform — there are websites that do a great job with this (World Resources Institute, for one). And while we have some of the tools that allow you to monitor a species, we’re not really designed to do this task which, by the way, is already very aptly handled by sites such as iNaturalist.org. At the same time, if there’s a map layer that will help you monitor your AOI, let us know about it and we’ll see if it can be added to the set of layers we make available. 

Getting Started with Alerts

  1. If you haven’t already done so, register for an account.
  2. Identify your AOI(s).
  3. Identify the Alerts you want to receive.
  4. Check your email for new alerts.

What About Dataset XYZ?

We are always on the lookout for new datasets that can be a source for new Alerts, and we depend on our subscribers to help find these sources. If a dataset is important to you, it might also be important to others and we’d like to learn more. Email us at info@skytruth.org.

The number one requirement for an Alerts source is that the data must be available online. After that, to be meaningful the source needs to be related to the environment, have location information such as latitude/longitude or address, and include a date such as the incident date. Alerts don’t have to be about incidents that have already occurred. We’re also interested in new alert sources that would drive people to take action before there’s harm to the environment. Think upcoming hearings, permitting processes, etc. If the data’s online somewhere, it might make a relevant SkyTruth alert.

Our current plans are to add more oil and gas permitting states, pollution incidents and federal datasets such as those from the EPA. We love hearing from our subscribers about potential new sources and how they can be useful, and the more people who might use a source, the more likely we can add it to our database.

Coming Soon?

SkyTruth may soon be its own source of Alerts. Over the years we’ve compiled some unique datasets such as our global flaring data, which dates back to 2012. New flaring in an AOI equals a new alert, right? That’s the plan! We’re also working on algorithms that will automatically identify changes in the environment and our strategic plan includes feeding the results of Conservation Vision into Alerts. Stay tuned for progress on these fronts!

 

Global Flaring Volume Map

Interactive Map Detects Gas Flaring Volume Worldwide

SkyTruth has built on NOAA’s work in estimating natural gas flaring volume by creating an interactive map showing individual flaring locations as identified by NOAA’s Earth Observation Group (EOG).

Flaring – the method of burning off the unwanted natural gas in massive, open flames – is a chronic practice in oil fields around the world. While flaring can be a safety measure used to avoid buildup of explosive gases, it often indicates the operator has concluded the cost of building a pipeline for the gas exceeds the value of the lost revenue. If this gas was captured or used to produce electricity on-site, this wasted energy could supplement the electrical grid without burning coal and ease the market demand that drives the drilling and fracking of shale-gas wells elsewhere.

Why are site-specific estimates important? Besides providing knowledge of the locations and magnitudes of greenhouse gas emissions, gas flaring has been shown to affect wildlife, public health, and even agriculture negatively.

SkyTruth’s map makes site data available over virtually any Area of Interest (AOI). As of November 2017, the dataset includes annual estimates for years 2012 through 2016.

Global Flaring Volume Map

With a few clicks, the SkyTruth map lets you:

  • Visually see the location of each flaring site
  • Click for details from the EOG dataset
  • Identify custom Area of Interests (AOI) by either drawing on the map, selecting a range of preloaded AOIs (Country, State, County, Province, Federal Lands), or uploading your own GeoJSON file
  • Download flaring data that falls within any AOI

You can view this map yourself at https://viirs.skytruth.org/apps/heatmap/flarevolume.html.

A description of how EOG estimates flaring volume is detailed in this paper. Details of the nightfire algorithm that detects hot sources from the VIIRS instrument can be found in this paper.