SkyTruth has been tracking permitting and drilling activities related to fracking in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and other states for years, reconciling the differences between what’s on paper in state permitting offices with what satellites reveal from space. Fracking refers to a process of recovering oil and gas found in seams of rock using high pressure water, sand, and a cocktail of toxic chemicals. High density fracking can lead to water pollution and water depletion, habitat fragmentation, heavy truck traffic, noise pollution from compressors, air pollution, human health impacts and social disruption as out-of-state workers flood local communities. In some cases, drilling occurs in heavily populated areas, even within 500 feet of buildings, including homes and schools. In more remote places, it fragments wildlife habitat with a dense industrial landscape.
Much of SkyTruth’s early work focused on the proliferation of oil and gas wells throughout the western United States – easily visible from space — and then in Appalachian states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania. We documented the escalation of wells in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Valley (the southern part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem), which transformed a rural landscape populated by ranchers and wildlife into an industrial zone that overwhelmed nearby communities. We enlisted scores of volunteers with our FrackFinder projects in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, who scanned hundreds of satellite images and aerial photos to help us map the spread of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) throughout the region. That work led to scientific studies by researchers at Johns Hopkins University documenting the human health impacts of fracking. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan used this information in deciding to ban fracking in his state.
Today, we’re taking advantage of the vast quantities of satellite data increasingly available and using cutting edge technologies such as machine learning to “teach” computers to automatically detect oil and gas activities such as fracking, vastly expanding our ability to document near real-time changes on the ground in heavily drilled, often remote, areas.