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.

Mapping Potential “Drillout” Scenarios in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania Webinar

SkyTruth is hosting a webinar at 1:00p EDT this Thursday, May 9th, to talk about our new app illustrating potential natural gas drilling scenarios in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The SkyTruth team will walk through how to use the app, and we will show how implementing a range of setback distances and well spacings can lead to very different futures for southwestern Pennsylvania.

Allegheny County Drilling App Receives Its First Update

The SkyTruth app that maps potential drillout scenarios across the landscape of Allegheny County, PA has officially received its first update! In an effort to make the experience more user-friendly, explanatory text and tips have been added. Our app has also been updated to remove from the drillout scenario areas such as major highways and the Pittsburgh International Airport, where drilling would obviously not take place.

A screenshot of the app when first initialized.

At the request of some users, we’ve also tabulated the results for the potential drillout scenarios by municipality.  See the results in this table showing the number of occupied structures within two miles of a hypothetical drilling site, based on a given setback distance (in feet) and drilling site spacing (in acres), for every township and borough.  

We were also asked to calculate the number of occupied structures located within 500 feet, and within two miles, of existing Marcellus Shale drilling and fracking sites. According to our analysis, 78 occupied structures fall within 500 feet of an active drilling site in Allegheny County and 67,673 occupied structures sit within two miles of an active drilling site.  Recent scientific research has found human health impacts for people living within 2 miles of a drilling site.

Be sure to check out these insightful new updates for yourself.  Give the app a try and let us know what you think by contacting Brendan at info@skytruth.org with any feedback you might have!

CONSERVATION VISION

Using Artificial Intelligence to Save the Planet

A letter from our founder, John Amos

The trends aren’t encouraging:  Industrialization, urban development, deforestation, overfishing, mining and pollution are accelerating the rate of global warming and damaging ecosystems around the world. The pace of environmental destruction has never been as great as it is today. Despite this grim assessment, I believe there’s reason to be hopeful for a brighter future.

I’m optimistic because of a new and powerful conservation opportunity: the explosion of satellite and computing technology that now allows us to see what’s happening on the ground and on the water, everywhere, in near real-time.

Up until now we’ve been inspiring people to take action by using satellites to show them what’s already happened to the environment, typically months or even years ago. But technology has evolved dramatically since I started SkyTruth, and today we can show people what’s happening right now, making it possible to take action that can minimize or even stop environmental damage before it occurs. For example, one company, Planet, now has enough satellites in orbit to collect high-resolution imagery of all of the land area on Earth every day. Other companies and governments are building and launching fleets of satellites that promise to multiply and diversify the stream of daily imagery, including radar satellites that operate night and day and can see through clouds, smoke and haze.

A few of the Earth Observation systems in orbit.
Just a few of the Earth-observation satellites in orbit. Image courtesy NASA.

The environmental monitoring potential of all this new hardware is thrilling to our team here at SkyTruth, but it also presents a major challenge: it simply isn’t practical to hire an army of skilled analysts to look at all of these images, just to identify the manageable few that contain useful information.

Artificial intelligence is the key to unlocking the conservation power of this ever-increasing torrent of imagery.

Taking advantage of the same machine-learning technology Facebook uses to detect and tag your face in a friend’s vacation photo, we are training computers to analyze satellite images and detect features of interest in the environment: a road being built in a protected area, logging encroaching on a popular recreation area, a mining operation growing beyond its permit boundary, and other landscape and habitat alterations that indicate an imminent threat to biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, and human health.  By applying this intelligence to daily satellite imagery, we can make it possible to detect changes happening in the environment in near real-time. Then we can immediately alert anyone who wants to know about it, so they can take action if warranted: to investigate, to document, to intervene.

We call this program Conservation Vision.

And by leveraging our unique ability to connect technology and data providers, world-class researchers and high-impact conservation partners, we’re starting to catalyze action and policy success on the ground.

We’re motivated to build this approach to make environmental information available to people who are ready and able to take action. We’ve demonstrated our ability to do this through our partnership with Google and Oceana with the launch and rapid growth of Global Fishing Watch, and we’re already getting positive results automating the detection of fracking sites around the world. We have the technology. We have the expertise. We have the track record of innovation for conservation. And we’ve already begun the work.

Stay tuned for more updates and insights on how you can be part of this cutting-edge tool for conservation.