Friday, October 2, 2015

Map of Active Wellpads in Pennsylvania: 2005-2013

Citizen-scientist analysis of aerial survey imagery from 2013, validated by SkyTruth, found 1,615 new wellpads in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale (and related Devonian shales). This latest result of our ongoing FrackFinder projects brings the total to 2,724 active industrial operations that we have identified spread across the fields and forests of Pennsylvania. These numbers are not to be confused with rig counts (which maxed out at 116 in 2011 and 2012) or the total number of shale wells drilled in William Penn's woods (over 7,788). 

Because drilling rigs move around and operators often drill multiple wells from each wellpad, this count is a more accurate representation of the number of locations around the Commonwealth where land has been cleared, pipelines have been laid, impoundments have been built, water and chemicals have been trucked in, and equipment has been assembled to drill and frack one or more wells. 

Click here or the animation above to explore an interactive map of wellpads observed in 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2013. The animation shows all observed wellpads cumulatively, 2005 = Blue, 2008 = Yellow, 2010 = Orange, and 2013 = Red. 

By itself this data might not be much different than what you could generate from looking at permit data and when drilling began, but we have included this phase in all our FrackFinder projects so that we can be sure we are looking at all the right places. Sometimes permit data is backlogged and a dataset you download today may not reflect everything that is happening in the real world. Additionally, having several years of crowdsourced image analysis data will enable us to do some nice comparisons to see how accurate state data are, as well as check the accuracy of our citizen scientists. 

Wellpad in a Pennsylvania State Forest in 2012. Credit: Bill Howard, The Downstream Project via LightHawk

To provide some context for all those points on the map, check out these aerial photos from our parters at the Downstream Project. Wellpads are typically 3-5 acre gravel parking lots surrounded by roads, impoundments, pipelines, and other related infrastructure. In high-density drilling areas, or areas with a lot of steep terrain, these sites can occupy 15-20 acres of interconnected industrial activity. Ultimately, we are doing these studies so that we can better understand the public and environmental health implications of living near these operations.

Stay tuned for news about a new FrackFinder project coming up for a brand new state (Hint: It's a very mountainous state and the only one in the Union with this cardinal direction of the compass in its name). 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Mapping Inactive Metal Mines Across the US

On August 5, more than 3,000,000 gallons of acidic, heavy-metal-laden mine waste from the Gold King Mine polluted the Animas River in southwestern Colorado. Ironically, the accident occurred while contractors for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were trying to plug a smaller leak from the inactive mine that was already polluting the river. 
This was not the first river famous for trout fishing and whitewater to be so poisoned. And, as you read on, you’ll see it’s not likely to be the last.

While headlines across the country point fingers, hundreds of thousands of similar abandoned and inactive mines lie scattered across the nation.
With all the attention on the problem of abandoned and inactive mines we thought we would try to map some of these other mines that haven't made headlines (yet). 

Click the image to explore the interactive map of inactive and abandoned mines across the U.S. (including Alaska)
The most extensive, and most current, nationwide dataset that we could find was the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Mineral Resources Data System (MRDS), which contains information about over 266,000 sites in the United States.

However, "most extensive" is a relative term. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States hosts anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 abandoned mines , while third party reports from the early 1990's compiled from state-by-state data put the number at over 557,000. While the USGS data contains plenty of information about the type of minerals once produced by these mines, it says little-to-nothing about who is responsible for the site or the status of site reclamation.

So the very best that we could do to visualize abandoned and inactive mines using this data was to select only the mines whose development status as of 2012 was listed as a "Past Producer":

"[a] mine formerly operating that has closed, where the equipment or structures may have been removed or abandoned."

In order not to clutter the map with quarries and gravel pits, we also excluded sites that exclusively produced nonmetallic commodities. This leaves us with the 64,883 mines you see above, ranging from 200+ year old gold mines in Virginia to Cold War era uranium mines in the Four Corners region of the desert Southwest.

Credit: SandhillFarms1625
What we should all take away from this map (besides an appreciation for the immense number of holes we've dug in the ground) is the alarming lack of data about the scope and scale of the abandoned and inactive mine problem. Even counting the quarries and gravel pits, the MRDS dataset only contains 118,399 records for past producers in the US, and the Office of Surface Mining's enhanced Abandoned Mine Lands Inventory System (eAMLIS) database (not included in this map) only contains 53,794 records, mostly for coal. Even adding these two datasets together leaves us hundreds of thousands of mines short of the aforementioned estimates.

More than anything, this map shows how both the public and our public officials are largely in the dark about the abandoned and inactive mine lands that litter the landscape. Furthermore, we have little information about which of these thousands of points on the map have been reclaimed, and which are toxic abscesses in the earth's surface just waiting to poison another watershed.


You can download and examine the raw data for yourself at Do you know of other federal datasets we should look at for information on inactive metal mines? Leave a link in the comments below.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Oil Closes Another California Beach

Officials in Santa Barbara County, California, had to close another beach because of oil washing ashore from an as-yet unidentified source.  Summerland beach is located along the coast between the site of the Refugio State Beach pipeline oil spill back in late May, and the beaches of Ventura County that were also closed when tarballs began coming ashore a week after that.  Is the Summerland oil coming from some of the natural oil seeps in and around the Santa Barbara Channel?  Or is it coming from one of the offshore oil platforms in the vicinity?  

A beautifully clear Landsat-8 satellite image was taken on August 14.  Summerland is at top center on this sequence of images.  A faint slick several miles long dominates the center of the scene:

Detail from Landsat-8 satellite image showing California coast around Summerland.
Seven oil platforms and three passing vessels are noted. Platform A was the site of the infamous Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969.  The slick in this image appears to emanate from the same location as Platform A. 
Locations of known natural seeps, and sample collection sites for oil slicks and tarballs, are shown.  Data from USGS / PCMSC. The USGS data show a "seep" or small cluster of seeps at the Platform A site.
It's not clear to us if the "seeps" indicated by USGS on the data shown above are natural seeps that predate the installation of Platform A and the catastrophic subsea blowout and spill of 1969; or if "seep" in this case refers to the ongoing slow leakage of oil resulting from that blowout.  If you know, please write a comment below.  

This Sentinel radar satellite image taken yesterday (August 23, 2015) clearly shows the big metal oil platforms as rows of brilliant spots. The large dark patches are slicks -- flat patches of water -- but it's not clear on this image if they are caused by seeps, variable wind, floating kelp, or (most likely) all of the above in this very dynamic place:

Sentinel-1A radar satellite image, same area as above, taken on August 23, 2015. Oil platforms are bright spots; slicks (oil and otherwise) are dark patches. Image courtesy Copernicus / ESA.
Radar image shwoing locations of oil platforms, as well as known oil seeps and sample locations from USGS / PCMSC. Image courtesy Copernicus / ESA.

Bottom line: We don't see a clear culprit for the Summerland spill, but it might be worth flying over Platform A to see if the seepage there has recently increased for some reason. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

SkyTruth Data Analysis Aids Fishing Slavery Investigation

"They got it!!"

Late in the afternoon on July 14, an investigative journalist from the Associated Press (AP) informed SkyTruth that over three months of research, behavioral analysis, and satellite vessel tracking had culminated in photographic evidence of a refrigerated cargo ship receiving transshipments at sea from fishing vessels believe to be crewed by slave labor.  [UPDATE: On August 12, the Silver Sea 2 was seized and brought to shore by the Indonesian Navy, pending further investigation.]

Detail from WorldView-3 satellite image showing two fishing trawlers tied up to the refrigerated cargo vessel Silver Sea 2 in the waters of Papua New Guinea on July 14, 2015. The cargo holds are open, suggesting that the ship is receiving catch from these trawlers implicated in slave labor.  Credit: DigitalGlobe/AP

Thanks to daring investigative journalism supported by data-driven intelligence from SkyTruth, the lawlessness of the high seas has recently been making major headlines.  In March, the AP published the results of a year-long investigation that revealed slave-caught seafood in the supply chains of major American supermarkets. Their stories traced the repatriation of one Myanmar fisherman after 22 years separated from his family, and prompted the rescue of hundreds of migrant fishermen from captivity on remote Indonesian islands. Last month, in a tour-de-force of international journalism, the New York Times exposed the contemptible track record of the Dona Liberta, a name-changing, flag-switching cargo ship that we observed spilling oil off the coast of Angola back in 2012. The Times investigation also explored slavery, murder, and poaching on the high seas in their four-part series The Outlaw Ocean.

In April, SkyTruth began monitoring more than half a dozen vessels suspected to be involved in the trafficking and enslavement of Burmese migrants on fishing boats working the sea off Southeast Asia. 

Through careful analysis of satellite-derived vessel location data over a six-month period, we were able to help the AP acquire the satellite image above, capturing an apparent transshipment at sea, where fish are transferred from one vessel to another. Many of the fishing vessels we are interested in are exempt from broadcasting their location via the Automatic Identification System (AIS), but because they stay at sea for months at a time, must regularly offload their catch to refrigerated cargo ships (also known as "reefers") like the Silver Sea 2. For safety reasons, large ships including reefers are required by international law to broadcast their identity, location and speed via AIS, giving us a way to catch a glimpse of the shadowy world of transshipments at sea.

April 2015 - Silver Sea 2 completes a circuit through the 'Dog Leg' region of the Papua New Guinea EEZ. Three months later, DigitalGlobe would capture an image of the Silver Sea 2 in almost exactly the same location, receiving catch from suspect fishing vessels.  Credit: AIS data from exactEarth and ORBCOMM; map by SkyTruth.

For three weeks the Silver Sea 2 lingered in a region of Papua New Guinea's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) called the Dog Leg. During this time, the reefer stopped broadcasting its location and was presumably receiving shipments of seafood from trawlers operating in the area. On May 17, the Silver Sea 2 turned its AIS transponder back on and headed west, destined for Indonesia and Thailand. Looking back in time, we found evidence of two other Silver Sea reefers making this same circuit. Armed with intelligence that revealed a predictable pattern, our team was optimistic that we might be able to get a satellite snapshot of the "Dark Fleet" that was offloading fish to the Silver Sea reefers. 

Intentionally collecting a high-resolution satellite image of a fishing boat underway at sea is difficult. Transshipments, however, are another story:  reefers are stationary, or moving very slowly and predictably, for hours to days at a time while they receive catch from vessels in the area. There is still a possibility that clouds could obscure the target, or no fishing vessels are alongside at the moment the satellite flies overhead, but the odds of success are better.

On July 13th we notified AP that Silver Sea 2 was returning, following the same pattern we observed in April. Another Thai reefer, the Sea Network, was also anchored in this coastal transshipment area. With two reefers likely transshiping catch, the time was ripe to go for it. Later that day, the WorldView-3 satellite collected an image of Silver Sea 2 rendezvousing with two vessels believed to be part of the slave fleet previously operating out of Benjina.

60-day track of the Silver Sea 2, as of August 7, 2015. Image Credit: ShipView from exactEarth.

The Silver Sea 2 is now well under way toward Thailand, but news of this transshipment being spotted by satellite appears to have prompted authorities step up their efforts. Another Thai cargo ship, Blissful Reefer, has been detained and eight more fishermen have been freed from purported slavery at sea.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Politicians Defend Taylor Energy While Their Gulf Oil Leak Continues

Predictably, some Louisiana lawmakers (is that really a good way to describe these folks?) are rushing to defend the now-defunct Taylor Energy company which, according to ex-Senator Mary Landrieu, should be "commended for its diligent, collaborative, and environmentally responsible work on this matter." 

"This matter" is a chronic leak that's been pouring crude oil continuously into the Gulf for almost 11 years, and shows no signs of tapering off.  Taylor Energy has declared -- apparently with no explanation or corroboration by independent experts -- there is nothing they can do, that wouldn't cause worse harm to the environment.  Federal officials estimate the leak will continue for another 100 years, until the reservoir is tapped out.  

Here's a satellite image of the Taylor site just a few miles off the coast of the Mississippi Delta, showing a 21-mile-long slick extending northeast from the location of the buried, leaking wells.   It was shot from NASA's EO-1 satellite on July 3, using the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) instrument.  It has some remarkable detail: a thin sheen, slightly darker than the adjacent Gulf waters, surrounding a thin pale-blue streak that indicates oil thick enough to have the distinct reflectance signature characteristic of crude oil.  We estimate the sheen is, on average, 1 micron (one millionth of a meter) thick.  The pale-blue core is much thicker, perhaps millimeters thick.  This is consistent with direct observations and sampling of the Taylor slick conducted by researchers from Florida State University last summer.  

Detail from July 3, 2015 ALI satellite image of Taylor Energy site showing 21-mile-long slick trailing off to the northeast. Note the line of small, scattered cumulus clouds and their matching shadows that seems to follow the slick (water particles forming around aerosols caused by evaporating hydrocarbons?).  

Same as above, with our analysis of the slick extent (yellow overlay).  Slick covers 30.7 square kilometers. 
Using our conservative rule of thumb -- that a slick observable on satellite imagery is, on average, at least one micron thick -- we calculate the 21-mile-long Taylor slick on July 3 represents at least 8,100 gallons of crude oil.  And what did Taylor Energy report to the Coast Guard that same day? A slick 12 miles long containing 71 gallons.

Commendable indeed.

MODIS satellite image taken the same day (July 3, 2015).  Sunglint patterns and various types of clouds make for a visually complicated image, but theTaylor slick appears as a pale line the same size, shape and orientation as in the more detailed ALI imagery above.  Red dots indicate locations of oil spill reports submitted to the National Response Center (NRC) over the previous few weeks. The loose cluster of reports about 20 miles northeast of the Taylor Energy leak site suggests that those observers are sighting the far end of the Taylor slick. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Word Games Continue: Just What Evidence Did EPA Not Find?

Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a series of draft reports on their findings from five years of research and literature review on the question of whether or not fracking contaminates groundwater. But if you just read the headlines you might have been confused about 
what the EPA had actually concluded. As Forbes pointed out, the headlines were a bit contradictory. 

But the bigger news is that even EPA was inconsistent about the findings of their own report. The press release from EPA states that their assessment (emphasis added): 

"...shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources."

However, the Executive Summary of the report puts things differently (emphasis added):

We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. 

These two statements may look similar, but there is a big difference between saying that you did not find find any evidence of a crime and definitely claiming that you have proven the suspect's innocence. But try telling the House Natural Resources Committee that fracking has never been proven NOT to cause contamination, and members of Congress will laugh aloud and joke about pigs not flying to Mars. Seriously (check out 1:12:10).

But buried on page 22 of the 28-page executive summary, the EPA goes on to say (again, emphasis added):
This assessment used available data and literature to examine the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing from oil and gas on drinking water resources nationally. As part of this effort, we identified data limitations and uncertainties associated with current information on hydraulic fracturing and its potential to affect drinking water resources. In particular, data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty.
So in short, the EPA didn't find proof of wide-spread contamination from fracking, but they lack the data to say with any certainly whether that means anything at all. At least they acknowledged that they found "specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells." Which is actually big news coming from an agency which had previously stopped short of such a conclusion. 

Unfortunately, this contradiction between headlines from the EPA PR office and the finely-nuanced findings of the EPA scientists just underscores a point we made by in 2013. Word games are still misleading the American public about frackingand "...[w]hile cases of contamination caused by fracking remain obscured by lack of information and tricky linguistics, we know that a growing number of citizens are reporting harm and environmental contamination in unconventional oil and gas fields, and especially from wells that have been fracked."

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Bigfoot Suffers Damaged Tendons...

No, not the hairy cryptid with large feet and reclusive temperament, but rather Chevron's massive extended tension-leg platform (TLP) in the Gulf of Mexico which was expected to go into production later this year and produce up to 75,000 barrels of oil per day. The massive project hit a setback late last month when 6 of the 16 "tendons" designed to anchor the platform to the sea floor sank in approximately 5,200 feet of water. The Bigfoot platform is reportedly being towed to more secure waters while this incident is investigated. 

We took a look at satellite AIS and does appear the rig has returned slightly shallower water. Not exactly sure why they took such a long trip down south around May 11, but we do know they have been contending with a strong Gulf Loop Current this year, which also delayed operations.                                    AIS data copyright – exactEarth/ShipView.

The reports also state that the Bigfoot platform was not connected to any wells and no fluids were released, which sounds plausible given our understanding of the process of installing a TLP. But how exactly does an TLP work? Well according to
While a buoyant hull supports the platform's topsides, an intricate mooring system keeps the TLP in place. The buoyancy of the facility's hull offsets the weight of the platform, requiring clusters of tight tendons, or tension legs, to secure the structure to the foundation on the seabed. The foundation is then kept stationary by piles driven into the seabed. The tension leg mooring system allows for horizontal movement with wave disturbances, but does not permit vertical, or bobbing, movement, which makes TLPs a popular choice for stability, such as in the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico. 
If that is a little too technical, check out this promo video from a company that does these installations. In particular, fast-forward to 3:48 and you can see how the tendons have "tendon support buoys" to keep them afloat until they are attached to the structure and the platform is cranked down into the water to hold it in place.

The fact that something went wrong with the flotation of multiple tendons before the platform was even put into production is a reminder that things can always go wrong, and when it comes to deepwater oil drilling, the stakes are very, very high. Chevron has admitted that this setback will make it impossible to reach their goal of starting production by the end of 2015. 

Meanwhile, Shell's Polar Pioneer remains in Seattle, Washington, gearing up for a summer attempt at drilling in the Arctic despite the protests of 'kayaktavists' blockading the massive offshore rig. We would like to think that industry would have to prove they can drill for oil without incident in the relatively placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico before they forge ahead into new territory like the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf and the harsh but pristine waters of the Arctic Ocean, but in the absence of such policies SkyTruth will just have to continue keeping a close eye on the Gulf, Arctic, Eastern Seaboard, and all the other places being considered or opened up for offshore exploration and production.