U.S. National Forests No Match for Drilling Boom

As part of SkyTruth’s ongoing analysis of gas and oil drilling in Pennsylvania (see HotSpot Map blog and Abandoned Wells blog) we’ve begun exploring the effects of the Marcellus play on national and state forests.

This issue has been of concern to environmentalists and residents alike for several years. In 2009 the U.S. Forest Service was sued by conservation groups for allowing gas drilling to continue without the completion of environmental site assessments of potential drilling effects. The case was ruled in favor of such assessments, but drilling companies and private mineral owners with stakes in the Allegheny were quick to appeal. In September, 2011 the settlement requiring environmental site assessments before drilling can begin was overturned, thus opening up the national forest for new gas and oil drilling, including horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The map below illustrates drilling in Allegheny National Forest from January 2005 – October 2011:

3,845 oil and gas wells drilled in Allegheny National Forest since 2005


Nearly 4,000 oil and gas wells were drilled in Allegheny National Forest since 2005.  Only 15 of those are Marcellus Shale wells, and all of them were drilled since 2009. As the concern about natural gas drilling in U.S. National Forests spreads, SkyTruth intends to continue monitoring the number of permits received by the PA DEP Bureau of Oil and Gas Management to see if this ruling will bring increased drilling activity in the area as expected. 

Legacy of the Past: Over 7,000 Abandoned and/or Orphan Oil & Gas Wells in Pennsylvania Alone

As part of SkyTruth’s ongoing work to illustrate drilling through images, mapping and raw data analysis, analysts have produced a new map illustrating the startling number of improperly abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania.

Drilling in the state goes as far back at 1859 but it was not until the 1920s that legislation required all new wells to be plugged at production’s end, and not until the 1960s that all wells had to be permitted. As a result, thousands of oil and gas wells with no recorded location information litter the state, many that were never properly sealed (plugged) or are in varying states of deterioration; 2,184 abandoned and/or orphan wells in McKean County alone.

This issue has become of greater concern due to increased drilling throughout the state, especially in the Marcellus Shale region. As more and more companies scramble to gain footholds in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even New York, it is crucial that industry players and local citizens alike recall what past drilling booms have left behind. The effects of a well, even after it has stopped producing, can have serious environmental and health consequences for decades to come if proper regulations are not mandated and followed.

Top 5 counties in Pennsylvania with largest number of abandoned and orphan oil/gas wells

High Fracking Rates in Pennsylvania Since January 1, 2011

SkyTruth analysts have found that since the beginning of 2011 there have been 2,067 new natural gas and oil wells drilled in the state of Pennsylvania, with the majority being Marcellus Shale gas wells. All of these wells are being hydraulically fractured (fracked).

Data are updated daily from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and accounts not only for wells already drilled, but also those soon to be drilled.

As listed today, there are ten wells slated to be drilled between September 30 (tomorrow) and October 6, 2011.

These listings bring the grand total to 2,077 drilled wells in the state so far this year.

The tables below break this down by county.

Major Sediment Runoff Affecting Chesapeake Bay – How Much From Drilling?

The one-two rainfall punch thrown by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee landed hard on the chin of the mid-Atlantic and New England, bringing record amounts of rainfall and causing epic flooding from Washington, DC to Vermont.  Now we’re seeing one of the results: a torrent of river water laden with runoff is pouring into bays and estuaries along the Atlantic coast.  Yesterday afternoon’s MODIS/Terra satellite image shows this impact on Delaware Bay and the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay:

MODIS/ Terra image taken September 12, 2011, showing sediment-laden runoff (pale brown) from the Susquehanna River filling the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay.  

This runoff consists of sewage overflows and sediment and other contamination washing off farmer’s fields, construction sites, and impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots and rooftops.  It’s a big shot of bad news for aquatic critters and the stuff we like to eat from the Bay – oysters, rockfish and crabs – and it’s not too great either for the communities along the way that get their drinking water from these rivers and streams.   
One of our concerns is that one-third of the Bay watershed lies on top of the Marcellus Shale drilling play, and we expect tens of thousands of new construction sites in the area over the next several years as companies clear land to drill wells, install pipelines, and build support facilities.  These sites represent potential new sources of runoff and surface water contamination, and given the precarious state of health of the Bay,we think this potential needs to be seriously evaluated and, if necessary, mitigated and better regulated to ensure the Bay doesn’t suffer as this gas resource is developed.  
This photo taken by our intern Ben Pelto this weekend illustrates the problem: severe erosion and obvious runoff from one of the many miles of new gas pipeline under construction in Pennsylvania to support the shale-drilling boom. Note the silt fences down at lower right (near the small green sign that says “Wetlands Boundary”!) and the lack of any runoff control structures perpendicular to the pipeline cut as it comes down this typically steep hillside – a recipe for disaster even with a common summer cloudburst, as any trail manager could attest:
Erosion along new gas pipeline right-of-way in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (Susquehanna River basin), north-central Pennsylvania.  Photo taken by SkyTruth intern Ben Pelto on September 10, 2011.

 We’re also starting to see disturbing but unsurprising pictures of flooded drilling sites and beat-up, pushed-around pieces of equipment like the tanks that hold drilling mud and fracking fluid.  That’s because, unbelievably, most states allow industry to drill in high-risk floodplains.   Our friends at LightHawk are flying over the areas affected by flooding, including the Wysox Creek watershed where we collected water quality measurements earlier this summer.  When their aerial pics become available we’ll share them here, along with more from Ben’s trip this weekend.

UPDATE  9/16: see aerial pics of flooding, Marcellus Shale drilling sites, and pipeline construction (and a few beauty shots!) in the upper Susquehanna basin taken by J Henry Fair during a LightHawk overflight on Monday, September 12. 

SkyTruthing –> AirTruthing –> GroundTruthing the Marcellus Shale

Paul getting ready to fly our Marcellus target area today.

Today our intrepid water-quality team went up in the air on a reconnaissance flight of new Marcellus Shale gas-drilling sites in northern Pennsylvania, thanks to our flying friends at LightHawk.  Paul, intern Ben, and videographer Ed got a great aerial tour of the three watersheds within the Susquehanna drainage that we targeted using satellite and aerial imagery and GIS data to identify current drilling activity.  Intern Michelle is taking a short break from her Gulf of Mexico oil-pollution duties and is joining them to help take water-quality measurements in streams throughout these watersheds, to see if we can identify any impacts from drilling and fracking.  Paul told me this afternoon they saw plenty of signs of fracking: well sites crowded with rectangular tanks that look similar to the cargo containers that get stacked up on oceangoing freighters. He also said the drilling sites they saw appeared shipshape, with erosion-control measures in place; but the access roads were another story.

Fracking tanks lined up at Marcellus Shale drilling site near Dimock, Pennsylvania in 2010. Photo copyright J Henry Fair.

So what will they find this weekend?  We really don’t know.  Hopefully, nothing unusual.  But in some places folks have noticed degraded water quality associated with the onset of drilling activity.  This may happen for a variety of reasons.  Our team will measure temperature, pH, conductivity and turbidity, and compare these measurements with pre-drilling baseline water quality data available from the state.  We’ll let you know what we learn.