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:

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

 

Olympic Park, Sochi

Here’s a “before-and-after” view of the Olympic Park showing some of the transformation that has occurred in the vicinity of Sochi to accommodate the ongoing Winter Olympics:

Future site of Olympic Park near Sochi – 2007
Olympic Park – November 2013

Anyone else tired of figure skating and snowboarding yet?

Timelapse: Three Decades of Powder River Basin Coal Mining

Earlier this year Google launched the Timelapse project,  a global interactive map that uses three decades of Landsat imagery to show how our world is changing. One stunning example of human impact on the planet is the rapid buildout of Powder River Basin coal mines in the Thunder Basin National Grassland.

In addition to domestic power production, coal exports are an increasingly controversial issue as demand in Asia increases. Exporting coal means even more mining here at home, long coal trains transporting it to ports through busy cities, increased train derailments, and more dirty coal terminals that spill and flood


If you can’t see the embedded map above, please check it out on our website: http://skytruth.org/issues/mining/energy/

Be sure to check out past posts on this issue to see mines like this one compared with more familiar features like San Francisco, and get an idea how big the trains are that carry all this coal to foreign markets. And do some skytruthing of your own at: 

Panama Canal Getting Bigger. Much Bigger.

A man, a plan, a canal. Panama!

It’s not just a quaint anagram. In this age of relentlessly expanding global commerce, Panama has been planning ahead, and is investing billions of dollars in supersizing the canal (photo gallery here) to allow the passage of the new breed of supersized cargo ships.  Even more coal mined from Appalachian mountains and Montana/Wyoming prairies — and possibly natural gas extracted from shale by hydraulic fracturing — will likely be shipped to Asia and other markets once this expansion work is completed.

The global warming-driven decline in Arctic sea ice might divert some of the cargo traffic Panama is counting on to pay for this expansion, if the Northwest Passage becomes a viable trade route. So in a bit of irony, by feeding the world’s addiction to fossil fuels, Panama may be undercutting its business plan.  Just sayin.

Here are a couple of images from Google Earth showing the area around the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal near the Gatun Locks, as it appeared in 2005 and with the expansion project well underway in 2012.

Panama Canal near Gatun, in 2005.

 

Panama Canal near Gatun, in 2012. Expansion of canal in progress to accommodate much larger ‘New Panamax’ cargo vessels.

 

More post-Sandy NOAA Aerial Photography Available

NOAA has posted a new set of post-Hurricane Sandy aerial photography covering much of the New Jersey shoreline and parts of the New York City metro area.  The images were shot yesterday, November 1.

It’s remarkable how much beach erosion is evident from these photos.  It’s possible the “before” images were taken during low tide, but breaking waves are apparent much closer to roadways and homes along the shore than on the pre-Sandy photos.

Here are a few examples to follow up the ones we posted yesterday.  You can view all the photos from October 31 and November 1 on NOAA’s handy interactive website. NOAA has also created a small gallery of before/after image pairs using a neat slider tool for easy comparison. [Another, bigger gallery is here.]

BEFORE: Lake Como, NJ.
AFTER: Flooded neighborhoods surrounding Lake Como, NJ. November 1, 2012.

BEFORE: Beach near Monmouth, NJ.
AFTER: Beach erosion near Monmouth, NJ. November 1, 2012.
BEFORE: Sandy Hook, NJ.
AFTER: Beach erosion, Sandy Hook, NJ. November 1, 2012.

Before-After Aerial Photography Shows Damage, Shoreline Changes from Hurricane Sandy

NOAA has published their first round of post-Hurricane Sandy aerial survey photography, covering the Atlantic coastlines of parts of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.  You can view this detailed, high-resolution color imagery in a convenient, easy to use map viewer.  You can choose a street map or recent Google imagery for a backdrop; and you can flicker between that backdrop and the new aerial imagery by toggling the check boxes next to the aerial imagery layers shown along the left side of the map, to get a direct “before and after” comparison.

In many places, the damage is quite stark.  Homes and businesses have vanished.  The shoreline has changed dramatically, and new inlets have opened up.  Here are a few examples that we found after just a few minutes of review.  The post-Sandy images in these examples were shot yesterday (October 31):

BEFORE: Bridge south of Point Pleasant, NJ.
AFTER: New inlet; damaged/destroyed houses; flooding. October 31, 2012.
BEFORE:  Amusement park, Seaside Heights, NJ.
AFTER:  Partial collapse of amusement park pier; wreckage of roller coaster lying in surf (see photo below); mounds of debris piled up on beach. October 31, 2012.

Roller coaster at Seaside Heights amusement park, October 31, 2012. Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images / 2012 Getty Images. SOURCE: Stamford Advocate.

BEFORE: Barrier island near Great Bay, NJ.
AFTER: Severe erosion, dune washover, shoreline change. October 31, 2012.

We’ll be looking for more NOAA aerial survey photography in coming days, covering additional parts of the affected coastline.  Let us know if you see anything you find particularly interesting.