Disclaimer: Even Incomplete Data Are Useful

On Wednesday, SkyTruth released a database created from over 27,000 “chemical disclosure reports” voluntarily submitted by industry to FracFocus.org for gas and oil wells fracked between January 2011 and August 2012. But as a few folks have pointed out, there are some obvious issues with this database: the data hardly represent all of the wells drilled; roughly 21% of the records are concealed as proprietary or “trade secret;” and the data include a wide variety of mistakes, from spelling errors to invalid Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) numbers. 

So why did we publish this database?

In the news release we said, “SkyTruth hopes this data release will promote discussion about effective disclosure, and credible research on this nationally significant issue.”
 
Our objective was to capture the FracFocus dataset as is – warts and all – in hopes that other enterprising researchers and analysts would be able to help clean it up and produce useful analyses to inform the public. Many have complained the data don’t rise to the standard of adequate public disclosure (see this article from Bloomberg News).
Like a broken clock, bad data can be fixed.
However, we have to know exactly how it is

broken in order to make it useful. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Audrius Meskauskas
By making the data available, these shortcomings can now be systematically analyzed and quantified by anyone with the skills and interest to do so. We think this is tremendously important, because some states have already designated FracFocus as the place for public disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking; and the federal government may be on the brink of doing the same for millions of acres of public land. 
 
The database has already helped us produce useful information about disclosure rates in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the large amount of water used in the fracking process (relative to Niagara Falls and Central Park in New York City), and even the continued use of diesel fuels for fracking in spite of the Safe Drinking Water Act. We expect that other NGOs, academics, the general public, and regulators can use the database to calculate disclosure rates in other states, compare the data with public health information, analyze trends in the use of certain chemicals geographically or by company, and much more.
 
The FracFocus data give us only a partial picture of the chemicals used in fracking.  We hope this data release will help inform the discussion about what true transparency should look like — and stimulate real, concrete action by government and industry to meet that high standard.

 

Fatal Explosion and Fire on Platform in Gulf of Mexico

[UPDATE: Coast Guard says 11 hospitalized, 2 missing but not confirmed dead as search continues so there is still hope. Photos of damaged rig with fire extinguished.]

Just one day after the Department of Justice and BP announced a settlement on criminal charges and fines related to the fatal explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drill rig in 2010, we’re now getting reports of another tragic incident.  An explosion and fire has claimed the lives of at least 2 workers on a platform operated by Black Elk Energy about 10 miles off the Louisiana coast. This is in Block 32 of the West Delta lease area (see map below). The water depth is about 60 feet.  The fire has been extinguished. [UPDATE: ] Two other workers are reported missing, and four have been airlifted to the hospital. No oil spill has been reported.  Black Elk says 28 workers were on the platform, but it was not producing any oil.

PHOTO: The US Coast Guard confirms that a rig explosion occurred in West Cote Blanche in the Gulf of Mexico, Nov. 16, 2012.
Burning rig in West Delta Block 32. Photo by Pamela Garrie Kibodeaux/KATC. Source:  ABC News.

There’s a cluster of platforms in this area.  Here’s a map showing platforms as orange dots.  West Delta Block 32 is outlined in yellow.  We’re not sure exactly yet which of these platforms suffered the explosion:

Map showing West Delta Block 32 (yellow box). Oil and gas platforms shown as orange dots.

 

SkyTruth Releases Fracking Chemical Database

Today, SkyTruth released a database on the chemicals used during the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking, at oil and gas wells across the United States. These data (which took a heckuva lot of work for us to compile) are being made freely available to the public for research and analysis. We’re doing this in the hope that this information will facilitate credible research on this nationally significant issue, and will promote discussion about effective public disclosure. 
Voluntary industry disclosures of the chemicals used in fracking operations nationwide are now available in the SkyTruth Fracking Chemical Database. 

We extracted the data from more than 27,000 “chemical disclosure reports” voluntarily submitted by industry to FracFocus, for gas and oil wells fracked between January 2011 and August 2012. The SkyTruth Fracking Chemical Database is the first free public resource enabling research and analysis of the chemicals used in fracking operations nationwide.  

Working with our partners at FracTracker.org we are helping them to publish maps, analysis and visualizations using this data set on their FracMapper mapping utility.

A few examples:  

  • Using this dataset we calculated the volume of water used for fracking across the United States, and compared that to the amount flowing over Niagara Falls and the area covered by Central Park
  • We looked at the ongoing, unpermitted use of diesel fuels in fracking, apparently in violation of the Safe Drinking Water act. 
  • Most recently, we examined disclosure rates in West Virginia and concluded that state and industry data were so incomplete that the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking ranged from only 0% to 31.6%
Responding to public calls for greater transparency Texas, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and five other states require disclosure via FracFocus. But with the limited tools provided by FracFocus, data aggregation and analysis is impossible. Despite these and other critical shortcomings, the White House has suggested FracFocus is a suitable platform for public disclosure.
 
More states are considering relying on FracFocus to address increasing public pressure for disclosureThe Bureau of Land Management is finalizing new rules for fracking that will apply to drilling on millions of acres of public land, and may be on the verge of designating FracFocus as the public disclosure platform. But we think the data must be much more accessible, shareable, and useable for the public to be adequately informed about the types and amounts of chemicals used in fracking operations. 
 
“The intelligible disclosure of industry information and data through this SkyTruth action will make the task of research on the effects of fracking much easier,” said Dr. Tony Ingraffea, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University. “This large and ever-expanding dataset is invaluable for cross-referencing with other datasets such as health and environmental quality.”
 
Those interested in this resource are encouraged to contact SkyTruth for more information on the data and to discuss research potential.  

We would like to thank the Colcom Foundation, the WestWind Foundation and Patagonia for supporting this work.
 

Small (But Common?) Oil Leak in East Bay off Mississippi Delta

We’ve been seeing a steady stream of National Response Center (NRC) oil spill reports lately through the SkyTruth Alerts system, clustered in East Bay off the Mississippi Delta in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a bunch of oil platforms out there, mostly small and unmanned (you can see a few of them in detail on Google Maps).  The NRC reports typically describe one-time leaks and spills of very small amounts of oil, but the frequency of reports  in that same vicinity over the past two months definitely caught our eye.  Even NOAA got involved, investigating a report of a leak from a wellhead (a small unmanned platform servicing a single well).

SkyTruth Alerts map of East Bay showing recent pollution reports from the National Response Center (red dots) and investigation report from NOAA.

Bonny Schumaker, tireless pilot and Gulf pollution watchdog, flew out over East Bay on Saturday (yes, she also flew the notorious Taylor Energy chronic leak site just the day before).  Sure enough, she spotted a leak from one of the platforms in East Bay.  Here’s her video, and a few pics of the leak (here is the platform in Google Maps; the location is  28.998579° North / 89.281001° West).

As far as we can tell at this time, aside from Bonny’s report this particular incident apparently hasn’t been reported to the NRC as required by law. Another example of systematic underreporting of oil pollution in the Gulf?

Small oily leak from platform in East Bay, Gulf of Mexico, on November 10, 2012. Photo courtesy Bonny Schumaker / On Wings of Care.
 Same platform on November 10, 2012. Photo courtesy Bonny Schumaker / On Wings of Care.

 

Site 23051 – Leaking Oil Into the Gulf Since 2004

We’ve reported on this pollution source several times since 2010, when we discovered a chronic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico where a platform operated by Taylor Energy was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Back in 2010 there was a deepwater drill rig, the Ocean Saratoga, at the site for a while, working to plug the leaking wells. But the rig departed long ago for work elsewhere, and we haven’t seen any sign of repair activity there since. Nevertheless, the company reports the continuing leak on a near-daily basis to the National Response Center, and we continue to see the slick on satellite images and during aerial overflights.

Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care flew over the Taylor Energy site on Friday (November 9). Scroll down in her blog post to see video and pics of the Taylor oil slick.  Here’s a sample:

To see more info and pics on this chronic pollution source, check out SkyTruth’s site chronology and report.

Post-Sandy Oil Spill at Motiva Enterprises Oil Teminal, New Jersey

Crews are still working to clean up a major oil spill from the Motiva Enterprises Sewaren Terminal along the Arthur Kill River in New Jersey. An estimated 277,000 gallons of diesel fuel were spilled from storage tanks damaged by Hurricane Sandy at this facility co-owned by Shell. Some of this oil escaped into a tributary to the Arthur Kill River that separates New Jersey from Staten Island.

NOAA aerial survey photography taken after the spill gives us a very useful tool for analyzing storm damage, by comparing with pre-spill high-resolution imagery in Google Earth.  We’ve shown some of the severe structural damage and beach erosion revealed by these photos.  Now we’ll take a look at oil pollution:  NOAA air photos shot on November 2 and November 3 show many oil slicks on the Arthur Kill, near marinas and industrial facilities. Some of the slicks are probably from the Motiva spill. We were able to identify two storage tanks on the aerial imagery that were moved off their foundations and partially crumpled. These may be the source of the spill.

As we’ve seen with previous severe storms like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike, coastal oil-handling facilities are vulnerable to flooding and storm surge. With scientists forecasting more frequent severe storms fueled by warming ocean waters — and politicians in both parties pushing for expanded offshore drilling and the construction of coastal oil-handling infrastructure — we can expect to be hit more frequently with spills like this.  Who should pay the inevitable costs associated with cleanup?

Street map of the area around Motiva’s Sewaren oil terminal on the Arthur Kill River separating New Jersey and Staten Island, New York.

 

Google Earth imagery of the map area above from 2010, revealing numerous industrial sites. Oil, natural gas, and chemical storage tanks are round, white dots.

 

BEFORE: Detail from Google Earth imagery of the area in 2010, showing storage tanks that may be part of the Motiva facility, along a tributary to the Arthur Kill River.

 

AFTER: NOAA aerial imagery of the same area taken on November 3, 2012. Four storage tanks were reportedly damaged. Can you spot two tanks that have obviously moved off their foundations?
AFTER: NOAA aerial imagery showing oil slick at mouth of tributary to the Arthur Kill. Oil-containment booms (thin orange lines) span the tributary, but oil is apparently escaping into the Arthur Kill. The “rainbow” appearance is typical of thin oil slicks.

 

AFTER: Another oil slick spanning the Arthur Kill, just south of the tributary mouth. Source is unknown.

 

AFTER:  Numerous slicks emanating from what appears to be an old industrial / brownfields site along the Arthur Kill, south of the images shown above.

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.