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.

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.

Fracking: Coming to a Backyard Near You?

Last summer one of our interns, Jerrilyn Goldberg, put together an interactive story map detailing the impact hydraulic fracturing is having on the state of Pennsylvania. The map goes describes the fracking process and its associated risks, and how the growing industry is impacting local communities and the environment. She examines the proposition that switching to a natural gas dominated energy system would mitigate global warming, an important thing to consider when discussing future energy development. You can check out the story map by clicking the image below:

When thinking about fracking and its potential costs and benefits to society, it’s important to remember the impact it will have on the people living near it, not just the country as a whole. The industry touts the amount of potential energy that can be gained from a fracking well relative to its “small” footprint as a major advantage of the process over conventional gas wells and coal extraction. Wells can be permitted and drilled quickly, and with horizontal drilling a single well has access to a large area of potential gas reserves. This also means that wells can pop up at an alarming rate and fit into places that are uncomfortably close to where people live and work. Often times, these wells and their associated infrastructure are within sight and earshot of people’s homes, or even schools, hospitals, and other sensitive areas where people’s health can be put at risk by the 24/7 noise, lighting, diesel fumes, dust, and volatile chemicals emanating from typical drilling sites:

Here in western Pennsylvania we see how close fracking operations can come to people’s homes; the people living in the cluster of houses on the left have to live with the commotion around the well pads a stone’s throw away on a daily basis, and the massive fluid retainment ponds in blue could pose a threat to their health. Click on the image for a fullscreen version.

 

The story in West Virginia is very similar. Here a fracking well pad is less than a football field away from someone’s home. Click on the image for a fullscreen version.

Often times, many of the people that will be affected by a new fracking operation have little to no say in the matter. People are typically powerless to stop construction of a drilling site on a neighboring property, and don’t have any say in where and how the site and associated roads and utilities get built, even though they will still have to deal with the increased noise, light, and traffic, as well as decreased air quality. Health concerns are a major issue because fumes and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) originating from well pads and fluid retainment ponds have been linked to respiratory and skin illnesses. Fracking operations have also been known to contaminate people’s drinking water by causing methane migration, posing an explosion hazard, and fracking fluids that have made it into the water table can render water unsafe for drinking, bathing, and even laundry. Accidents like fluid spills and well blowouts are an ever-present threat, with the potential to send thousands of gallons of fracking fluid spewing into the air and onto the surrounding landscape, as happened to a well in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania in 2010 that resulted in more than 35,000 gallons of fracturing fluid contaminating the environment. Local campers had to be evacuated from the area. 

Hydraulic fracturing has really taken off in the last decade thanks to horizontal drilling technology. Here, in this section of southwestern Pennsylvania, we can see how rapidly fracking operations have expanded near the Pittsburgh area. The colored dots show the locations of new drilling sites similar to the ones shown in the images above, identified with help from our FrackFinder volunteers.

Because of its location over a particularly rich part of the Marcellus Shale, Pennsylvania has been one of the states most heavily impacted by the fracking boom, but fracking has begun to take off in other states as well. These include Ohio and West Virginia, where along with Pennsylvania you’ve helped us investigate and map drilling activity through our FrackFinder project to quantify the growing impact of fracking in each state, and make the data available to the public and to researchers investigating the impact of fracking on public health and the environment.

Ohio sits partially atop the Utica shale. This map shows the locations of well pads built between 2010 and 2013 in a small part of the eastern portion of the state, and the access roads that were carved out to support them. Click on the image for a fullscreen version.

 

Fracking is relatively new to West Virginia, and the topography is rugged (as shown by this shaded-relief map), so well pads aren’t yet spaced as densely as they are in states like Pennsylvania. The red polygons represent well pad construction, and the dark blue represent retainment ponds. Click on the image for a fullscreen version.

If you’d like to learn more about fracking and how it impacts people and the environment, be sure to check out Jerrilyn’s story map for an in-depth look!

 

Rampal Coal-Fired Power Plant Threatens Sundarbans

The Sundarbans: a near-mythic landscape of forest and swamp, byzantine river channels and tidal mud flats, one of the last strongholds of the highly endangered Bengal tiger. Straddling the border separating India and Bangladesh, this impenetrable wilderness spans the mouths of the Ganges River as its broad delta meets the stormy Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.  This is one of the special places on earth that is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  That’s why concern is mounting over the construction of a new coal-fired power plant just upstream in Bangladesh, near the town of Rampal. One of the world’s poorest countries, Bangladesh needs stable sources of electricity to improve the general standard of living. But the location of this power plant is problematic. It’s being built along the bank of a distributary channel of the Ganges, one of the world’s biggest rivers, prone to regular flooding.  It is essentially at sea level, in a region routinely thrashed by strong tropical cyclones that push massive storm surges up those channels and far inland.  As global warming pushes up sea level, and is predicted to make tropical storms more intense, these problems will only get worse. (Irony alert: much of the global warming that imperils low-lying island nations and coastal nations like Bangladesh is a due to CO2 emissions from… coal-fired power plants.)

UNESCO spells out the risks to the Sundarbans in this report. Air pollution and fly-ash deposition downwind will impact the mangrove forests and alter the chemistry of surface waters; onsite storage of coal-ash in such a flood prone area poses a significant risk of water contamination (as we’ve seen here in the US, with a massive coal-ash spill in Tennessee and currently ongoing spills caused by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Matthew); and the transport of coal by large cargo ships increases the possibility of large oil spills, as we observed when two ships collided in the Sundarbans in December 2014.

We thought we would take a look at the Rampal power plant site using Google Earth to show what’s happening as the construction progresses:

skytruth-rampal-overview

Location of the Rampal coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh, currently under construction. The remaining intact mangrove forests of The Sundarbans are dark green.

skytruth-rampal-location

A closer look at the Rampal power plant site, on the eastern bank of a distributary channel of the Ganges River.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2001-september-29

Detail view of the Rampal site as it appeared in 2001, prior to any construction activity.  See time-series of matching views below.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2010-november-04

Rampal site in November 2010, prior to construction activity. Note that most of the area is flooded.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2014-april-24

Rampal site in April 2013. Construction activity is underway. Fill material (light brown) is being used to build up the site.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2016-march-21

Rampal site, March 2016. Fill material has been added to elevate and level the site, and levees (?) (bright strips?) are apparently being added along the perimeter.

skytruth-rampal-ge-2016-measured

Rampal site, March 2016. The site footprint now covers an area of 520 acres (nearly one square mile).