In April 2017, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed a bill reinstating a fracking ban in the state. The Maryland General Assembly imposed a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in 2013, and — following similar bans in Vermont in 2012 and New York in 2015 — the 2017 bill makes Maryland the third state in the country to ban fracking.
SkyTruth’s crowd-assisted FrackFinder work mapping oil and gas well pads played an important role in this environmental and public health victory. Lawmakers evaluated recent research led by Dr. Brian Schwartz at Johns Hopkins that found higher premature birth rates for mothers in Pennsylvania that live near fracking sites. In a related study, Johns Hopkins researcher Sara Rasmussen found that Pennsylvania residents with asthma living near fracking sites are up to four times more likely to suffer asthma attacks.
The research conducted by Johns Hopkins relied on oil and gas infrastructure data produced by SkyTruth. That means our work was among the things that Maryland legislators considered when they chose to extend the state’s ban on fracking. It’s incredibly exciting to see our work play such a direct role in policy-making, and it highlights the importance of continuing to update our oil and gas footprint data sets and sharing them for free with researchers and the public. We’re continuing to map the footprint of oil and gas development in Appalachia, so keep checking in for updates. Way to go Maryland!
We’re excited to announce the 2015 update to our Pennsylvania FrackFinder data set! Using the USDA’s most recent high-resolution aerial imagery for Pennsylvania, we’ve 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 Fall 2015.
Our previous Pennsylvania FrackFinder project identified the location of active well pads in imagery from 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2013. We are pleased to add the 2015 update to this already rich data set.
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.
We compared permit locations against high-resolution aerial imagery from the USDA’s 2015 National Agricultural Inventory Program (NAIP) to determine whether drilling permits issued since the close of our last Pennsylvania FrackFinder project in 2013 were active. There were more than 4,500 drilling permits issued in Pennsylvania during our study period (May 1, 2012, to September 30, 2015), many of them located quite close together. Ultimately, we ended up with roughly 2,000 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.
During Phase 1 of our FrackFinder WV project, we focused on identifying and delineating wellpads (drilling sites) and drilling-related fluid impoundments across West Virginia that have been built to accommodate the recent boom in drilling and fracking to produce natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shales. This data has been provided to our partners, researchers at Downstream Strategies and the University of California – Berkeley, who are studying the human health impacts of living near modern drilling and fracking operations.
This slider shows an area near Wilsontown, WV before and after drilling took place (the wellpad is highlighted in red, and an impoundment is shown in blue):
We thought we’d assess the direct environmental impact by measuring the change in the landscape resulting from all this construction activity. Here’s the breakdown of how much land was converted to industrial use between 2007 and 2014 as a result of fracking, categorized by the type of land cover that existed in the area before the wellpads and impoundments were built. The land cover data is from the National Land Cover Database, which is derived from Landsat imagery.
Land Area Converted to Wellpads and Impoundments, 2007-2014
It appears that the NLCD is registering this land conversion, as seen in the three images below which show the same area displayed in the slider. A wellpad first appeared on this site in 2011, which was when the NLCD was last updated using moderate-resolution satellite imagery, and it is identifying the drilling site as “barren” land. It is worth noting that of the 1,081 acres of forest cleared for drilling infrastructure, 27.8 were cleared in the Monongahela National Forest.
We find that 1,756 acres of land in West Virginia was converted to wellpads (averaging 2.3 acres in size) and impoundments (averaging 0.8 acres in size) from 2007 to 2014. That is an area 1/4 the size of Morgantown, WV and is 7 times larger than the town of Shepherdstown (where SkyTruth is based). This is a very conservative starting point for measuring the true drilling “footprint” because it doesn’t capture the total land area disturbed to construct the pads and facilitate drilling: tree clearing, site excavation and grading to accommodate heavy equipment and provide drainage control, access roads and utility / pipeline corridors, and associated facilities like compressor stations and storage facilities. Later this year we may ask you to help us delineate this larger halo of direct land disturbance related to drilling, which we speculate could be 2-3 times larger than the footprint of the wellpads and impoundments alone.
In the meantime we are gearing up for the launch of Phase 2 of FrackFinder WV. During this stage of the project, citizen volunteers (that’s you!) will assist SkyTruth in creating a dataset of homes which lie within 1/2 mile of the wellpads we identified in Phase 1, data that our partners think will be very useful for public health research.
So be sure to keep an eye out for project updates and calls for volunteers! If you sign up on our Volunteer page, you’ll get an email from us when the next FrackFinder project is up and running.
Up to this point, Allegheny County in southwestern Pennsylvania has been mostly spared from much of the fracking boom spanning that state. This may change however, as oil and gas companies have been systematically leasing property around the county for potential drilling. Usually it’s hard to get a handle on the magnitude of this threat, since leases on private property are generally difficult to discover. Fortunately for the public (us included), our friends at FracTracker Alliance built the Allegheny Lease Mapping Project: an interactive online map showing land parcels leased or contracted to oil and gas companies. Individual parcels of land that have been tied to oil and gas records can be selected to pull up a variety of information about that parcel. Users can explore the map to see where a parcel of leased land is located relative to homes, schools, bodies of water, parks, and other sites of interest. This tool is meant to help citizens, communities and policymakers make informed decisions about zoning, land use, and future oil and gas development in the region.
We thought it would be useful for folks to see where all the oil and gas leases are in the county, relative to the Marcellus Shale gas drilling and fracking that has already happened. FracTracker graciously provided their dataset, and we filtered it to only show parcels tied to an “active” lease. Here is the result. Properties with an active lease are displayed in green. Those that have experienced some drilling activity since the Marcellus boom began a decade ago, are shown in red:
Though much of Pennsylvania that overlies the Marcellus Shale has seen extensive fracking development, most of Allegheny County hasn’t yet had any of this modern drilling with hydraulic fracturing. But the large area under lease should give residents throughout Allegheny County some concern: a significant amount of drilling could be in their future, and drilling sites could be built uncomfortably close to where people live and work. The average size of a well pad is 3-5 acres, potentially bigger than a football field or even the deck of an aircraft carrier. In this illustration, hypothetical well pads and access roads (shown in yellow) are placed over existing leases in the northeastern portion of Allegheny County that have not yet been drilled (orange). Many of the leases come close to, or overlap with, existing residential areas:
In the close up above, we see that a potential well pad of typical size dwarfs the high school and football field only 1200 ft away. During drilling the neighborhoods nearby would have to cope with health, safety and lifestyle impacts associated with round-the-clock noise, heavy truck traffic, and degraded air quality, in addition to the longer-term potential for surface and ground water contamination caused by accidental leaks and spills.
It’s our hope that by making this hard-to-access leasing data easily available, folks in Allegheny County will be enabled and inspired to take action to protect their communities. A big tip ‘o the hat to FracTracker for building and sharing the lease dataset.
Last summer one of our interns, Jerrilyn Goldberg, put together an interactive story map detailing the impact hydraulic fracturing is having on the state of Pennsylvania. The map goes describes the fracking process and its associated risks, and how the growing industry is impacting local communities and the environment. She examines the proposition that switching to a natural gas dominated energy system would mitigate global warming, an important thing to consider when discussing future energy development. You can check out the story map by clicking the image below:
When thinking about fracking and its potential costs and benefits to society, it’s important to remember the impact it will have on the people living near it, not just the country as a whole. The industry touts the amount of potential energy that can be gained from a fracking well relative to its “small” footprint as a major advantage of the process over conventional gas wells and coal extraction. Wells can be permitted and drilled quickly, and with horizontal drilling a single well has access to a large area of potential gas reserves. This also means that wells can pop up at an alarming rate and fit into places that are uncomfortably close to where people live and work. Often times, these wells and their associated infrastructure are within sight and earshot of people’s homes, or even schools, hospitals, and other sensitive areas where people’s health can be put at risk by the 24/7 noise, lighting, diesel fumes, dust, and volatile chemicals emanating from typical drilling sites:
Often times, many of the people that will be affected by a new fracking operation have little to no say in the matter. People are typically powerless to stop construction of a drilling site on a neighboring property, and don’t have any say in where and how the site and associated roads and utilities get built, even though they will still have to deal with the increased noise, light, and traffic, as well as decreased air quality. Health concerns are a major issue because fumes and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) originating from well pads and fluid retainment ponds have been linked to respiratory and skin illnesses. Fracking operations have also been known to contaminate people’s drinking water by causing methane migration, posing an explosion hazard, and fracking fluids that have made it into the water table can render water unsafe for drinking, bathing, and even laundry. Accidents like fluid spills and well blowouts are an ever-present threat, with the potential to send thousands of gallons of fracking fluid spewing into the air and onto the surrounding landscape, as happened to a well in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania in 2010 that resulted in more than 35,000 gallons of fracturing fluid contaminating the environment. Local campers had to be evacuated from the area.
Because of its location over a particularly rich part of the Marcellus Shale, Pennsylvania has been one of the states most heavily impacted by the fracking boom, but fracking has begun to take off in other states as well. These include Ohio and West Virginia, where along with Pennsylvania you’ve helped us investigate and map drilling activity through our FrackFinder project to quantify the growing impact of fracking in each state, and make the data available to the public and to researchers investigating the impact of fracking on public health and the environment.
If you’d like to learn more about fracking and how it impacts people and the environment, be sure to check out Jerrilyn’s story map for an in-depth look!
Since the launch of FrackFinder, we’ve found great success in our efforts in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia enlisting the public to help us analyze aerial imagery across the Marcellus and Utica shale gas-drilling regions. The results have been unique datasets that are being used, or can be used, by researchers to study the impact fracking has on public health and the environment. What we’ve learned is helping us refine our tools and methods for future rounds of FrackFinder. Here we’ll give a rundown of the results of our efforts and what we’ve done with them, as well as links to the data we’ve made available free for public use.
Pennsylvania Fracking Sites Map
Our motivation behind the FrackFinder project was to fill gaps in publicly available information related to where fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale were taking place. Seeing an opportunity to make this info available to the public, but lacking state data, we began mapping fracking sites ourselves. The locations of drilling sites, also known as “well pads,” were hard to come by, but state permits for drilling individual oil and gas wells were easily accessible. Unfortunately drilling permits aren’t very useful on their own. The permits are just approvals to drill: they don’t say if the site is active, when drilling and fracking began or ended, or if development of the drill site ever happened at all. Luckily, each permit provides the exact location where the operator is authorized to drill their well. By pairing the location information from the permits with available high-resolution aerial survey photography from multiple years, it is possible for us to learn where active well pads are and narrow down when they were built to within a span of a couple of years.
Of course, analyzing multiple years’ worth of imagery for thousands of permit locations is a monumental task. To get the job done, we looked to crowdsourcing to speed up the process. Crowdsourcing also gives us the opportunity to reach the public, get people interested in citizen science, and provide them the opportunity to see the impact of fracking for themselves. It’s important for people to understand the large footprint fracking has compared to historical oil and gas drilling in the region, and seeing just how close many well pads are to farms and homes can change some people’s perspective on the issue.
Our first phase of FrackFinder took place in Pennsylvania. For this project we had 3,000 locations to examine on three different years of imagery, and we asked 10 volunteers to look at every site: a grand total of 90,000 image analysis tasks. Participants were presented with an image of a location corresponding to a drilling permit and were asked to determine if the site was active or inactive on the basis of visible infrastructure. All the tasks were knocked out in three weeks, thanks in part to a Washington Post article mentioning the project published around the time of our FrackFinder launch. In the quality assurance phase, we found that if seven of the ten participants for a given task agreed there was active drilling then our experienced in-house analysts agreed with the crowd, so we established 70% crowd consensus as an acceptable threshold to confirm if there was indeed drilling at a location. This first project went so well that we quickly supplemented it with another year of imagery. The final map we produced shows the location of active well pads in imagery from 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2013, and we intend to update it with 2015 imagery in the near future.
Pennsylvania Impoundments Map
Not long after publishing the data on well pad locations from the first phase, we were approached by researchers from Johns Hopkins University who were interested in our data. They wanted to study the public health impacts of living near a modern fracking site, and the state couldn’t provide anything comparable to what we had at the time. They were specifically interested in how volatile chemicals coming off drilling-related fluid impoundments would affect people living nearby. While we had locations for the wells from our first FrackFinder project, we didn’t have information on the size, location and timing of the impoundments that may contain drilling and fracking fluids.
Using the same imagery we had prepared for the first round of FrackFinder, we launched another round of crowd-assisted image analysis using the same methods to determine the presence of impoundments. After the public identified water bodies that were likely related to drilling, our analysts verified that they were impoundments and delivered the data to the researchers. The Pennsylvania FrackFinder project was the first time we used crowdsourcing to create a high-quality data set for use in actual research. And it has paid off in improving the public’s understanding of the health risks posed by living near modern drilling and fracking activity. The Johns Hopkins researchers have published the following peer-reviewed studies based in part on our work:
- Fracking associated with migraines, fatigue, chronic nasal and sinus symptoms
- Johns Hopkins study links fracking to premature births, high-risk pregnancies
Ohio Well Pads Map
Ohio was the first state outside of Pennsylvania to have its own FrackFinder spinoff. Instead of launching a public crowdsourcing project we enlisted the help of students at Walsh University in Ohio who were interested in studying the impact of fracking on the environment and looking to get experience with GIS image analysis. We asked students to delineate all terrain that was modified to accommodate the drilling activity, including forest clearcutting around actual fracking infrastructure. This not only provided an educational opportunity for the students, but it allowed us to build and experiment with tools we plan on using in the future to let the public delineate fracking sites and create complex polygons, rather than simply confirming the presence or absence of a well pad at a specific point. This work hasn’t been used for research yet, but it still produced a high-quality data set that is available to anyone who would wish to use it in the future to quantify the ecological footprint of fracking-related land use, and explore the habitat and ecosystem impacts of modern drilling and fracking.
West Virginia Well Pad and Impoundment Map
Due to time constraints, we conducted the first round of West Virginia FrackFinder internally, and now have a multiyear map and dataset showing the locations of Marcellus and Utica Shale drilling sites statewide. We plan on launching a new public FrackFinder round this summer using the same area delineation technique that was demonstrated in Ohio. In West Virginia, we delineated the footprints of well pads and fluid impoundments, but not the broader area of clearcutting and landscape modification surrounding the drilling sites as was done in Ohio. When we launch our next public FrackFinder round we will ask the public to delineate this “impact halo” around well pads to help determine the ecological footprint of fracking in the state.
The data we produce for West Virginia is being used by researchers at UC Berkeley and at Downstream Strategies. They will perform a geospatial proximity analysis to see how fracking activity near sensitive populations in schools, hospitals, homes, and rehabilitation centers, paired with different chemicals used in fracking, affects public health. The results of their research will be detailed in a comprehensive white paper that will be published with policy makers in mind.