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.”

From Trial to Triumph: Learning to Code at SkyTruth

When I was brought on to intern at SkyTruth, I was presented by one of our analysts, Ry Covington, with a rather open-ended challenge: “Here at SkyTruth, we want our internships to be a learning experience first and foremost. With that said, you can learn almost anything you want while working here. Think about your main goals, what you hope to get out of these next few months and let me know so that we can decide together how best to help you achieve your goal.” This isn’t verbatim, but it hits the mark in regards to the message he was conveying. I already knew the answer to this question, because it was something that I had thought about even before I started at SkyTruth: I had a strong desire to learn programming, especially as it pertains to the field of geospatial analysis. Now mind you, this is coming from someone who is brand new to programming in any respect. I had one class in C++ my sophomore year of college and all of that information has since slipped my mind, as most unimportant (or at least I regarded it as unimportant at the time) college course material does. I also had attempted to teach myself Python the summer before I started at SkyTruth while rehabilitating a nasty toe fracture, but that information didn’t quite encapsulate what I hoped to achieve with coding. I only knew the foundational pieces of what it means to communicate with a computer through coding, such as iterators, variables, and Boolean operators.

Around a month or so into the internship I received my opportunity to work towards my goal. Ry had a project he was doing with the Heinz Foundation that involved creating a map which detailed potential well pad sites in Allegheny County, PA (to see my blog post detailing the final results of this study, follow this link). We worked out a research approach and came up with a plan to map out these locations that seemed logical to both of us. Great. Now here’s an idea: let’s take all of those things that we want to incorporate into this project and write that into a Google Earth Engine (EE) script. On top of that, let’s also publish an app which uses this same Earth Engine script. These suggestions made by Ry seemed fine and well, until the moment where he delegated the task of writing this script unto me. In his words, “It’s a steep learning curve, but you’re a smart guy. You’ll figure it out!” He left the room as he was making this statement, leaving me stunned like a deer in headlights. Yes I wanted to learn to program, but this seemed excessive! After a few moments of processing, I collected myself and turned to the most trustworthy source of them all for guidance: Google Search. Looking up “Google Earth Engine tutorial” led me to a website which detailed the functions which you can use to make neat little UI plugins in your EE code. After a day of playing with them and applying some of the sample code they offered, I figured out how to display the elements of interest on the map. Following this discovery, I excitedly called to Ry to come and look at what I had made. He took one look at what I had done and said, “Good job Brendan, that’s an excellent start. Keep going.” Wait, this wasn’t what I was trying to get? It was an excellent start, which meant I was nowhere near the end. So it was time to expand my search for information.


An example of the guides found on Google’s official Earth Engine site.

At Ry’s suggestion, I looked at the code that one of SkyTruth’s other analysts, Christian Thomas, had written in EE for global ocean monitoring. This turned out to be an invaluable source of information for me but it was intimidating at first glance. The script itself is composed of over 500 lines of intensely in-depth code that made no sense to me whatsoever. On more than one occasion, I found myself becoming lost in the script’s intricacies while trying to find answers to my own predicament. Nevertheless, I remained determined to figure out how to compose my script, so I proceeded forward with the examples Christian’s code offered me. My program would involve creating a panel on which I’d load on a few buttons with different unique functions that built off of each other to display different text and layers on the panel and the map, respectively. Needless to say, my first few stabs at all of this led me to fall flat on my face. I could create the buttons that I wanted, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to put the buttons on the side panel that I’d made. I spent roughly two weeks trying to get over this hurdle.

It was nice to have the encouragement of my mentors to keep me motivated to seek the answer to this question. Without Christian and Ry’s calm demeanors and calculated approach to solving these programming issues, I probably would’ve lost hope quickly. Days of work would go by and I’d spend a lot of time carefully combing through my code trying to discover the answer to my plight. Even when I was at home at night, I’d think about ways I could get to the result I desired. Then one day, all at once, it hit me. It was like the roadblock in my mind was slammed into by a Mack truck and just like that I figured out how to get the buttons to display on the side panel. To describe the feeling as a whole is difficult, but I think I could compare it to the way I felt as a little kid on Christmas morning when I rushed down the stairs and saw presents underneath the Christmas tree. I jumped up out of my seat, did some silent yelling, and added in a few fist pumps for good measure. I was elated! The cool part about it was that once I broke through that wall, it was like the rest came naturally. My fingers fluttered across my keyboard as I coded exactly what I had in mind for this project. Before I knew it I had an EE script that was logical and effective. I remember when Ry and Christian first looked at my latest script and they had nothing but good things to say about what I had accomplished. That positivity made me feel great; it was a huge payoff after a great deal of tribulation. I had finally done it!

A screenshot from my finished app.

Now that I reflect on the path I followed to create this code, I’m astounded by how much I learned. I learned more in those few chaotic weeks than I would typically learn over the course of a semester long college course! It was a chaos that you can’t quite replicate in the classroom because there aren’t people depending on you when you’re doing homework or taking a test. The urgency to make your product the finest ever conceived is palpable. You do the best that you can for your coworkers, who end up being more like your friends here at SkyTruth. I think that hits the nail on the head when considering the mission of SkyTruth overall; we’re all here to provide information for others so that they can do meaningful work in defending our precious environment. Every task you work on here could have an effect on your world, so you do everything you can to give every project your all. I definitely got way more than I bargained for when I said that I wanted to learn to program at SkyTruth. Despite that, I couldn’t be more satisfied with the work I was able to do over my first few months here.

If you would like to view my completed app, please click here!