SkyTruth 2020: What to Expect in the New Year

Oil pollution at sea, mountaintop mining, Conservation Vision and more on SkyTruth’s agenda.

SkyTruth followers know that we generated a lot of momentum in 2019, laying the groundwork for major impact in 2020. Here’s a quick list of some of our most important projects underway for the new year.

Stopping oil pollution at sea: SkyTruth has tracked oil pollution at sea for years, alerting the world to the true size of the BP oil spill, tracking the ongoing leak at the Taylor Energy site until the Coast Guard agreed to take action, and flagging bilge dumping in the oceans. Bilge dumping occurs when cargo vessels and tankers illegally dump oily wastewater stored in the bottom of ships into the ocean. International law specifies how this bilge water should be treated to protect ocean ecosystems. But SkyTruth has discovered that many ships bypass costly pollution prevention equipment by simply flushing the bilge water directly into the sea.

In 2019 SkyTruth pioneered the identification of bilge dumping and the vessels responsible for this pollution by correlating satellite imagery of oily slicks with Automatic Identification System (AIS) broadcasts from ships. For the first time, we can ID the perps of this devastating and illegal practice.

PERKASA AIS track

Figure 1. SkyTruth identified the vessel PERKASA dumping bilge water via AIS broadcast track overlain on Sentinel-1 image. 

But the Earth’s oceans are vast, and there’s only so much imagery SkyTruthers can analyze. So we’ve begun automating the detection of bilge dumping using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) technique called machine learning. With AI, SkyTruth can analyze thousands of satellite images of the world’s oceans every day –- a process we call Conservation Vision — finding tiny specks on the oceans trailing distinctive oily slicks, and then naming names, so that the authorities and the public can catch and shame those skirting pollution laws when they think no one is looking.

A heads up to polluters: SkyTruth is looking. 

We got a big boost last month when Amazon Web Services (AWS) invited SkyTruth to be one of four nonprofits featured in its AWS re:Invent Hackathon for Good, and awarded SkyTruth one of seven AWS Imagine Grants. We’ll be using the funds and expertise AWS is providing to expand our reach throughout the globe and ensure polluters have nowhere to hide.

Protecting wildlife from the bad guys: Many scientists believe the Earth currently is facing an extinction crisis, with wildlife and their habitats disappearing at unprecedented rates.   

But SkyTruth’s Conservation Vision program using satellite imagery and machine learning can help. Beginning in 2020, SkyTruth is partnering with Wildlife Conservation Society to train computers to analyze vast quantities of image data to alert rangers and wildlife managers to threats on the ground. These threats include roads being built in protected areas, logging encroaching on important habitats, mining operations growing beyond permit boundaries, and temporary shelters hiding poachers. With better information, protected area managers can direct overstretched field patrols to specific areas and catch violators in the act, rather than arriving months after the fact.  It can alert rangers before they discover a poaching camp by chance (and possibly find themselves surprised and outgunned).

To make this revolution in protected area management possible we will be building a network of technology and data partners, academic researchers, and other tech-savvy conservationists to make the algorithms, computer code, and analytical results publicly available for others to use. By publicly sharing these tools, Conservation Vision will enable others around the world to apply the same cutting-edge technologies to protecting their own areas of concern, launching a new era of wildlife and ecosystem protection. In 2020 we expect to undertake two pilot projects in different locations to develop, refine, and test Conservation Vision and ultimately transform wildlife protection around the world.

Identifying mountaintop mining companies that take the money and run. SkyTruth’s Central Appalachia Surface Mining database has been used by researchers and advocates for years to document the disastrous environmental and health impacts of mountaintop mining. Now, SkyTruth is examining how well these devastated landscapes are recovering.

Figure 2. Mountaintop mine near Wise, Virginia. Copyright Alan Gignoux; Courtesy Appalachian Voices; 2014-2.

To do this, we are generating a spectral fingerprint using satellite imagery for each identified mining area. This fingerprint will outline the characteristics of each site, including the amount of bare ground present and information about vegetation regrowth. In this way we will track changes and measure recovery by comparing the sites over time to a healthy Appalachian forest. 

Under federal law, mining companies are required to set aside money in bonds to make sure that funds are available to recover their sites for other uses once mining ends. But the rules are vague and vary by state. If state inspectors determine that mine sites are recovered adequately, then mining companies reclaim their bonds, even if the landscape they leave behind looks nothing like the native forest they destroyed. In some cases, old mines are safety and health hazards as well as useless eyesores, leaving communities and taxpayers to foot the bill for recovery. SkyTruth’s analysis will provide the public, and state inspectors, an objective tool for determining when sites have truly recovered and bonds should be released, or when more should be done to restore local landscapes.

Characterizing toxic algal blooms from space: Harmful algal blooms affect every coastal and Great Lakes state in the United States. Normally, algae are harmless — simple plants that form the base of aquatic food webs. But under the right conditions, algae can grow out of control causing toxic blooms that can kill wildlife and cause illness in people. 

 SkyTruth is partnering with researchers at Kent State University who have developed a sophisticated technique for detecting cyanobacteria and other harmful algae in the western basin of Lake Erie — a known hotspot of harmful algal blooms. They hope to extend this work to Lake Okeechobee in Florida. But their method has limitations: It uses infrequently collected, moderate resolution 4-band multispectral satellite imagery to identify harmful blooms and the factors that facilitate their formation. SkyTruth is working to implement the Kent State approach in the more accessible Google Earth Engine cloud platform, making it much easier to generate updates to the analysis, and offering the possibility of automating the update on a regular basis.  We anticipate that this tool eventually will enable scientists and coastal managers to quickly identify which algal blooms are toxic, and which are not, simply by analyzing their characteristics on imagery.

Revealing the extent of fossil fuel drilling on public lands in the Colorado River Basin: Modern oil and gas drilling and fracking is a threat to public health, biodiversity and the climate. For example, researchers from Johns Hopkins University used our data on oil and gas infrastructure in Pennsylvania to examine the health effects on people living near these sites and found higher premature birth rates for mothers in Pennsylvania that live near fracking sites as well as increased asthma attacks.

The Trump Administration is ramping up drilling on America’s public lands, threatening iconic places such as Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Chaco Canyon is  a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains the ruins of a 1,200 year-old city that is sacred to native people. According to the Center for Western Priorities, 91% of the public lands in Northwest New Mexico surrounding the Greater Chaco region are developed for oil and gas, and local communities complain of pollution, health impacts and more.

Figure 3. Chaco Canyon Chetro Ketl great kiva plaza. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

In 2020 SkyTruth will deploy a machine learning model we developed in 2019 that identifies oil and gas drilling sites in the Rocky Mountain West with 86.3% accuracy. We will apply it to the Greater Chaco Canyon region to detect all oil and gas drilling sites on high-resolution aerial survey photography. We hope to then use these results to refine and expand the model to the wider Colorado River Basin. 

Local activists in northwestern New Mexico have fought additional drilling for the past decade. Last year, New Mexico’s congressional delegation successfully led an effort to place a one-year moratorium on drilling within a 10-mile buffer around the park. Activists view this as a first step towards permanent protection. SkyTruth’s maps will help provide them with visual tools to fight for permanent protection.

A new SkyTruth website: We’ll keep you up to date about these projects and more on a new, revamped SkyTruth website under development for release later this year. Stay tuned for a new look and more great SkyTruthing in the year ahead!

Visualizing the Expansion of Fracking in Pennsylvania: Part 3

If you have been following the first two posts in this series, you have been introduced to Pennsylvania’s hottest commodity: natural gas. The state has experienced a drilling boom with the development of the Utica and Marcellus shale formations, which underlie approximately 60% of the state. With Dry Natural Gas reserves estimated around 89.6 trillion cubic feet in 2017 (roughly ⅕ of the US total), natural gas development will likely play a big part in Pennsylvania’s future. The method for extracting natural gas from porous rock underneath the Earth’s surface, usually horizontal drilling paired with hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), is an extremely disruptive industrial process that could present significant human health and environmental repercussions (see also this compendium of public health studies related to fracking). Allegheny County, the focal point of SkyTruth’s previous analyses, has survived largely unscathed to this point, but developers have high hopes of expanding into the county.  

In order to see just how quickly natural gas development can expand, Allegheny residents need not look far. Allegheny’s neighbor to the south, Washington County, has become a critical site of natural gas production for the state of Pennsylvania. Not only does Washington County rank second in production among all Pennsylvania counties, but it also recently moved ahead of Susquehanna County as the home of the most active wells in Pennsylvania. Washington County is considered a part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, with a population of approximately 207,000. Though this is a fraction of the population of Allegheny County, its close proximity could prove indicative of what is to come in the county if stricter regulations are not put in place. In our final entry of this series, we will examine the expansion of drilling and fracking in Washington County, with eyes toward how the trends here might carry over to Allegheny County.

 

 

The area shown above lies close to the town of West Finley, PA and surrounds the perimeter of the Four Seasons Camping Resort (shown in the center of this image series). This area is right on the PA/WV border, within the heart of the Utica and Marcellus formations. These images show the growth of drilling infrastructure in a relatively low population setting.

 

The image above (courtesy Google) gives us a closer look at one of the drilling fluid impoundments which can be seen at the top left corner of the previous scene. SkyTruth recently wrapped up its 2017 FrackFinder update, which mapped the extent of new drilling in Pennsylvania between 2015 and 2017. According to our findings, the average size of one of these impoundment is 1.4 acres, slightly larger than the average football field. These ponds sometimes hold fresh water, and at other times are temporarily storing leftover fluid used in the hydraulic fracturing process which can contain volatile, toxic chemical additives.

 

 

This second area sees significant well pad development from 2008 to 2017. Located right outside the small town of Bentleyville, PA, several wells are constructed along this bend of I-70. This area is made up of former coal towns.  Mining facilities dot the landscape, indicating that residents of this area are no strangers to resource extraction.

 

 

This third series of images shows the massive development of the agricultural land surrounding Cross Creek Lake, located right outside of West Middletown. Cross Creek County Park (outlined in black), which encompasses the lake and its surrounding area, is the largest park in the county and serves as a convenient day retreat for residents of the city of Washington, PA, Washington County’s largest city. Many people come to the lake to fish, but the fracking operations in the park could prove to be detrimental to the health of the lake’s fish, according to recent research.

 

 

This close-up on an area at the Southwestern portion of the park (courtesy Google Earth) shows a children’s playground that lies just under 1500 feet away from an active drilling site (at lower right). This is well within the proximity suggested to be potentially hazardous to public health.

 

 

This final image series is taken from right outside the Washington County towns of McGovern and Houston. The drilling operations, which pop up in just four years, are located in close proximity to developing neighborhoods, parks, The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, and the Allison Park Elementary School. Unlike the other images depicted throughout this evaluation, this development takes place around a well established suburban area, where public safety could be at risk should disaster strike at one of these drilling locations.

 

 

The image above (courtesy Google) presents yet another example of just how close these drilling sites are built to residential areas in some instances. Massive industrial development could be seen and heard from one’s back porch!

This is all happening directly south of Allegheny County, so it is plausible that similar development could take place there.

Allegheny County is in an unique situation given its location, its population density, and its relatively low levels of natural gas development. As pressures on Allegheny County mount, we hope that these bird’s eye view evaluations of drilling in nearby counties will help to enlighten and inform policy moving forward. To see SkyTruth’s analysis of the effect that setback distances can potentially have on natural gas development in Allegheny County, please follow the link provided here.

This is the final entry in a three-part series visually chronicling the expansion of fracking across Pennsylvania.  This series is meant to complement our work mapping setback distances and potential adverse public health consequences in Allegheny County, PA.  For more about our setbacks work, please check out our blog post and interactive web app. To read the first entry in this series, please follow this link. To see the second entry in the series, click here.

Visualizing the Expansion of Fracking in Pennsylvania: Part 2

This is the second entry in a three-part series visually chronicling the expansion of fracking across Pennsylvania.  This series is meant to complement our work mapping setback distances and potential adverse public health consequences in Allegheny County, PA.  For more about this work, please check out our blog post or the web app. To see the first entry in this series, please follow this link.

If you have read the first entry in this series, you have been introduced to the situation that Allegheny County, PA currently finds itself in. Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) paired with horizontal drilling has become a well established method for breaking natural gas out of porous, but impermeable, rock formations like shale and silty sandstone. Pennsylvania has been inundated with these fracking operations over the past decade following the discovery of the massive gas reserves located in the Utica and Marcellus Shale formations. Although this discovery has led to a booming industry in Pennsylvania, these activities have also had adverse public health and environmental consequences.  

Susquehanna and Bradford Counties in the northern portion of the state are two examples of areas that have been heavily developed with natural gas wells and facilities. According to a report issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) in August of 2018, not only is Susquehanna County the largest producer of natural gas in the state, but it also accounts for 4% of the United States’ natural gas production. The same report points to Bradford County as the fourth largest natural gas producing county in the state, accounting for 13% of the state’s production. Although these two counties are both considered to be rural (their populations combined equal to roughly 8% of the population of Allegheny County, per the 2010 Census), the intensity of industrial infrastructure development across their landscapes has been astounding. In this post, we will look at the footprint the energy industry has created in both counties.

 

Figure 1

Figure 1 (shown above) gives an example of the development taking place in Susquehanna County. This time-series shows the expansion of wells over a seven year period in New Milford Township. The once agriculturally-dominated area is markedly changed by the introduction of gas drilling: new roads, fracking fluid impoundments, and supporting facilities carve up the landscape.

 

Figure 2(a)

 

Figure 2(b)

Figures 2(a) and 2(b) depict a very rapid expansion of drilling in Bradford County. Located between Troy Township and West Burlington Township, we’re able to see the development of ten new drilling sites in a 32 square kilometer area over just two years. These sites may have played a role in the 2.6 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas generated per day by Bradford County, according to the PA DEP’s August 2018 report.

 

Figure 3

Figure 3 shows an area near the city of Sayre in Bradford County. Situated along the border of New York and Pennsylvania, eight new drilling sites are developed between 2010 and 2013, along with subsequent roads and fracking fluid containment ponds. Drilling in these two counties is significant and — without a change in policy — could serve as a glimpse into Allegheny County’s drilling future.

To see SkyTruth’s analysis of the effect that setback distances can potentially have on natural gas development in Allegheny County, please follow the link provided here. Please be sure to check out Part 1 of this series and stay tuned for our final post in the series, detailing the current drilling scenario in one of Allegheny’s neighboring counties, Washington County.

2017 Frackfinder update

We’re excited to announce the 2017 update to our Pennsylvania FrackFinder data set.  Using the USDA’s most recent high-resolution aerial imagery for Pennsylvania, we’ve again updated our maps of the state’s drilling sites and wastewater impoundments.  Our revised maps show Pennsylvania’s drilling sites and wastewater impoundments as of October 2017.  

Our previous Pennsylvania FrackFinder projects identified the location of active well pads in imagery from 2005, 2008, 2010, 2013, and 2015. Our new dataset maps the drilling sites and wastewater impoundments that appeared on the landscape between October 2015 (the end of our last update) and October 2017 — the end of Pennsylvania’s 2017 National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) flight season.  We are happy to add the 2017 update to this already rich data set.

 

Pennsylvania drilling sites, 2005–2017

 

The goal of our FrackFinder projects has always been to fill the gaps in publicly available information related to where fracking operations in the Marcellus and Utica Shale were taking place.  Regrettably, there are often discrepancies between what’s on paper and what’s on the landscape. Permits for individual oil and gas wells are relatively accessible, but the permits are just approvals to drill: they don’t say if a site is active, when drilling and fracking began or ended, or if development of the drill site ever happened at all.

 

Pennsylvania wastewater impoundments, 2005–2017

 

We compared permit locations against 2017 NAIP imagery to determine whether drilling permits issued since the close of our 2015 Pennsylvania FrackFinder project were active. There were more than 3,100 drilling permits issued in Pennsylvania during our study period (October 11, 2015 to October 4, 2017).  Many of the drilling permits issued were located quite close together. Ultimately, we ended up with roughly 701 unique “clusters” of drilling permits to investigate and map.

We look forward to seeing how the public will use these revised data sets.  We hope researchers, NGOs and community advocates can use these unique data sets to gain a better understanding of the impact of fracking on Pennsylvania’s environment and public health.

Visualizing the Expansion of Fracking in Pennsylvania: Part 1

This will be the first entry in a three-part series visually chronicling the expansion of natural gas drilling with hydraulic fracturing — fracking — across Pennsylvania. This series is meant to complement our work mapping setback distances and potential adverse public health consequences in Allegheny County, PA. For more about this work, please check out our blog post and the web app.

Hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as “fracking”) is a controversial and disruptive process that has taken the Pennsylvania landscape by storm. The state has become prime real estate for the extraction of natural gas given its location above both the Utica Shale and Marcellus Shale formations, two of the United States’ most fruitful reservoirs of natural gas. Over the past decade, prospectors and entrepreneurs have come from near and far to grow the region’s natural gas industry. As a result, parts of the state have become riddled with fracking pads, which aim to break the precious resource out of pockets of porous rock under the Earth’s surface for harvesting. There are human health and environmental consequences coinciding with this process, but little regulation protects the state’s counties from these adverse impacts of fracking.

Allegheny County, home to the city of Pittsburgh and over one million residents, stands as both a case study and as a potential stronghold against the encroachment of natural gas drilling. Their main defense against fracking lies in zoning regulations which require a “setback” between drilling sites and “occupied structures.” The current minimum setback distance in the state is 500 feet, but that has not stopped well pad development from slowly creeping closer to homes (and vice-versa, as new home construction moves into areas of pre-existing drilling). In this post, we will look at some of these areas in Allegheny County and try to gain insight into the county’s current state as it pertains to natural gas development.

 

This first area, located directly south of the Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), shows some of this development.  In just four years, we see three new drilling sites pop up along a bend in I-376, as well as a drilling-related fluid retainment pond.  Notice the close proximity of the southernmost drilling site to these neighborhoods. A 500-foot setback distance may not be enough to protect these residential areas from potential health consequences linked to the fracking process:  recent research suggests that living within two miles (3.2 km) of a natural gas drilling site could subject you to adverse health effects.

 

This 3D image of the drilling site seen at the bottom left-hand of the scene in the gif above (courtesy Google Earth) shows just how close these drilling sites can get to residential areas.

 

This second set of images comes from the Forward Township, located on the Monongahela River along the border of Allegheny and Washington County.  Though not as heavily trafficked as the area surrounding PIT, the farms which lease their property to drilling companies could be putting their neighbors at risk.  Located near this well development is the William Penn School, a K-5 school, and several homes and farms. These residents might be facing potential threats without even having had a say in what is developed near them.

 

This example is located to the northwest of the towns of Tarentum and Brackenridge.  This is another demonstration of gas drilling in the county, with the pads appearing between 2010 and 2017.

 

This image, taken from the above scene, again shows just how close these drilling sites are being built to people’s homes.  This development is nearby where their children play and where people enjoy their time outside, as evidenced by the swimming pools which can be seen in the above image.  Though development in the county is sparse as of now, the groundwork is in place for a significant expansion of drilling in Allegheny County if setback distances are not strictly enforced or extended.

 

This 3D image (courtesy Google Earth) is from a farm immediately adjacent to the Pittsburgh Mills Mall in Tarentum. Notice that there are several houses that are extremely close to being within 500 feet towards the bottom left-hand of the scene; in fact, the house directly north of the drilling site is within 500 feet of the drilling site. This could be the landowner’s house, signifying that they have waived the minimum setback requirement for their home.

To see SkyTruth’s analysis of the effect that setback distances can potentially have on natural gas development in Allegheny County, please follow the link provided here.  And stay tuned for part two of this series, where we’ll look at fracking in Susquehanna and Bradford counties over the last decade.