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Earthquakes, Earthquakes! And Drilling?

We had some action here in the mid-Atlantic yesterday that would make the folks in California yawn, but is pretty unusual around these parts – a magnitude 5.8 earthquake centered in Virginia, that was felt far and wide. There have even been a couple of small aftershocks. Paul and Teri report that the shaking was obvious in Shepherdstown, and my wife Amy said it seemed to last for a long time:

I was terrified – I thought a tree was coming down and would hit the house, or a truck was running into the house.  I ran to the open door to try to figure things out. Then I thought it was a military aircraft.  But it went on for a long time time (or so it seemed) and I figured it was an earthquake.

And just a day earlier, there was a similarly moderate quake (5.3) that struck along the Colorado-New Mexico state line near Trinidad.  There has been a swarm of small, shallow earthquakes in this area in recent years; because this swarm sits right in the middle of a very active coalbed methane drilling play (known as the Raton Basin, including drilling on the nearby Vermejo Park Ranch property owned by Ted Turner), there is some speculation that these earthquakes are actually being triggered by either the withdrawal of natural gas from the rocks, or the injection of water produced from the CBM wells back into the ground for disposal.

Epicenter (red star) of magnitude 5.3 earthquake that struck the Raton Basin natural-gas field near Trinidad, Colorado on August 22, 2011. Quake was 4 km deep. White spots are recently drilled natural gas (coalbed methane) wells in this 2006 image. CBM wells produce large volumes of water, which is disposed of here by injecting it deep into the ground.

It’s not as wacky as it sounds.  Disposal of fracking fluids by deep injection was implicated in an unusual earthquake swarm in Arkansas earlier this year; and similar quakes in 2005 happened here in the Raton Basin. This USGS report on a 2001 earthquake swarm also raises the possibility of seismic activity induced by the injection of fluids for disposal (note: fluid disposal by deep injection is NOT the same thing as fracking; but it is a consequence of natural-gas production in some places).

Wallow Fire, Arizona – It’s a Beast

The Wallow wildfire in Arizona near the New Mexico border has grown to the 2nd-largest wildfire in the state’s history. Now there is concern that it could cause some power blackouts (ABC story and videos).

Here’s what this thing looks like on a NASA MODIS satellite image taken yesterday at 1:25 pm local time. The AZ/NM border is shown as a pale vertical line. Click for a larger view:

And here’s detail of the active fire zone from the same image, with the border removed:

Check Out Our Natural Gas & Oil Drilling Collection

Now that we’ve got our image gallery all organized and pretty, we don’t want to keep it to ourselves. We want to share our images with you and ask what you think. So without further ado, here is our biggest collection, Natural Gas and Oil Drilling. The images in this collection show the impacts of exploration, drilling, production, storage and transport of natural gas and oil. This gallery contains images of some beautiful Western landscapes too, like Valle Vidal, Raton Basin in New Mexico, shown here:

Valle Vidal

Or how about pictures from the the San Juan Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, where coalbed methane development has forever changed the landscape:

San Juan Basin coalbed methane (CBM) development

Take a look at our Upper Green River Valley, Wyoming set, then read more it in our blog posts.

Also in this collection are the Roan Plateau, Colorado set, with stunning visuals like this:

Roan Plateau, Colorado

But don’t stop there. There are 21 sets in this collection including the Pronghorn Roadkill Accident in the Jonah Gas Field of Wyoming; the Otero Mesa, in the Permian Basin of New Mexico; the Oil Sands/Oil Shale set; a simulation of proposed drilling in Grand Mesa, Colorado; and the Wyoming Range, Bridger-Teton National Forest.

There are images from the Montara Oil Spill off the coast of Australia in August of 2009, a blowout that provided us an unhappy preview of what can go wrong with offshore drilling:

Montara Oil Spill - August 25, 2009

Dirty Snow on the North Slope of Alaska:

North Slope - Winter 2006, Detail 3

And the tragic BP/Deepwater Horizon blowout in our own Gulf of Mexico almost a year ago:

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - FSU Sampling Cruise - June 22, 2010

Go check out these and many other images now at our SkyTruth Gallery. And we’ll be back with our next collection soon.

SkyTruth – How Do We Help (Part 2)?

All too often, public notice of a proposed well or other industrial facility — particularly those related to oil and gas drilling — gives the location in legal terms that are meaningless to the average citizen. Where, exactly, is the thing going to be drilled or built? We just got another great example of this: a proposed well to dispose of acid gas (carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, waste products of natural gas processing) on the site of a large gas processing plant, by injecting it into an underlying rock formation. Here is the public description of the location:

CASE 14329: Application of Anadarko Petroleum Corporation for approval of an acid gas injection well, San Juan County, New Mexico. Applicant seeks approval to drill an acid gas injection well at its Kirtland New Mexico site. The well will be drilled 1650 feet from the North line and 2310 feet from the West line in Unit F of Section 1, Township 29 North, Range 15 West NMPM, to inject up to 2000 barrels of acid gas per day at a maximum pressure of 1985 psi, into the Entrada Formation, at an approximate depth of 6500 feet to 6700 feet.

Concerned citizens in New Mexico contacted SkyTruth. We loaded the township/range grid into our GIS software, identified the location, and converted it to latitude/longitude coordinates. Then we plugged the location into Google Earth to generate a few images showing the proposed disposal well. Here’s the response to our work:

Thank you so much! I do believe you have located it. I was not aware that the plant was this large and so near Kirtland. It is much closer to residences than their permit request implies. We of course are worried about H2S leaks as well as the underground process…

It is really amazing how much we use these satellite pictures now. You have really opened up a valuable tool to us with your work. I find that they really help cut to the chase when shown to someone during a discussion. Usually people are stunned to see them. Can’t hide and it is hard to argue with pictures. They are a terrific and valuable tool for sure. – Kris Dixon

New Map – Conflicts Over Drilling in the Rocky Mountain West


We’ve been having fun with the MyMaps application in Google Maps. Anyone can build their own custom maps and publish them online. This is really useful and kind of fun if you’re a map-geek like me. We just created a map of the Rocky Mountain states (CO, MT, NM, UT, WY) showing some of the places where conflict has emerged recently because of the rapid pace of drilling, mostly for natural gas. This is not just about tree-huggers; many of these conflicts involve local landowners, ranchers, hunters, outfitters and ordinary folks who are angry about the impacts to the land and wildlife, pollution of once-pristine Western air and water, and decline in their quality of life. So check out the map.

And if you get inspired to create your own map that tells an environmental story, please share it with us: add a comment to this post, or send us an email.

By the way, our interactive conflicts map is featured on a new website, Why The Favors (WTF??), making its debut this week at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.