Friday, June 29, 2012

Same old song and dance

No big surprise here. Another slick apparently coming from Site 23051 in the Gulf. And another case of underreporting. It does seem to be the same old story, same old song and dance. The June 28 NRC report for this chronic leak, presumably filed by the responsible party - Taylor Energy - lists a spill volume of 16.59 gallons, and describes a slick 800 feet wide by 3.9 miles long. However, these MODIS satellite images tell a different story. In the top MODIS image from 6/28 you can see the slick pretty clearly:

MODIS Terra True Color image from 6/28

MODIS Terra True Color image from 6/28 with measurement of slick apparently emanating from Site 23051

And in this second image, you can see the length of the slick is a little more than the reported size of 3.9 miles. Using Google Earth's measuring tool, this slick is closer to 22 miles long. According to the  SkyTruth Alert for this report, using the calculations we use at SkyTruth to determine the size of a spill, and assuming a minimum average thickness of 1/1000th of a millimeter (1 micron) on the surface, we came up with a spill size of 404 gallons.  And that's using the description of the slick size given in the NRC report, even though the slick on his image taken the same day is much bigger than they reported. 

As you can see from the Site 23051 Chronology page we've been keeping, this is pretty standard practice for this location. And our Gulf Monitoring Consortium report shows this underreporting may be widespread.

We wish the companies reporting their spills would publish some details on how they come up with their numbers, so we could figure out why there is such a discrepancy between what they're reporting  and what we're observing.

New Imagery in Google Earth - Fracking Revealed

Google Earth just injected a fresh batch of imagery.  They update Earth regularly, and I always check in on the Google Lat/Long Blog to see if anything new has appeared in the places we're monitoring here at SkyTruth.  They give you this handy KML file you can download that shows the areas around the world that have updated images. You can also sign up using Google's Follow Your World tool to get an email notification whenever any new images appear for your custom-selected area of interest. 

One of the places with new imagery lies in the heart of the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling and fracking play, covering parts of several counties in northwestern Pennsylvania.  Here's an example looking at an area about 4-1/2 miles east-southeast of Kane, where I did some hiking as a 14-year-old back in the 1970s (and had my first encounter with a black bear - quite a thrill).  It was unbroken, wild forest back then.

It's changed a bit.

The newest imagery, shot in April 2012 before spring leaf-out, shows striking details of a new well pad covering 13.1 acres.  SkyTruth Alerts tells me this is a Seneca Resources horizontal well that was granted a drilling permit from the state in December 2011. It looks to us like the well has already been drilled and fracked. Piles of logs along the edges of the pad attest to the small trees that were cut down. 47 rectangular fracking tanks are lined up, and a stack of light-brown mats are waiting to be taken away to the next job. A couple of backhoes are working; one seems to be pulling up the liner from what was probably the fluid reserve pit:

Super hi-res, new Google Earth imagery from April 2012 of a recent natural-gas drilling site east of Kane, Pennsylvania.

The access road to this site has been around for a while - most of the area covered by the pad above had been logged sometime after 2005, based on flipping through the Google Earth historical imagery for this site. Here's what it looked like in summer 2010, the imagery that was in Google Earth before this latest update:

Previous imagery in Google Earth for the same location, taken in 2010. 

So check out Google Earth again if you haven't for a while, and re-visit your favorite places to see if anything's new.  And if you see anything you can't figure out, or that concerns you, let us know.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fracking and Public Disclosure - 43% Doesn't Cut It

43 friggin' percent? Say it with me:  FAIL.

One of the big issues related to the current national boom in natural gas and oil drilling is that the oil and gas industry doesn't have to publicly disclose the list of chemicals they're pumping into the ground to do hydraulic fracturing (fracking).  The industry was specifically exempted from those requirements in the national energy legislation that Congress passed in 2005.  Some critics call this the "Halliburton Loophole."  I call it an unjustifiable giveaway.  Why?  Because homeowners and municipal officials who want to test their drinking water so they can establish legally admissible, pre-drilling "baseline" conditions, and monitor the quality of their drinking water once drilling begins in their area, don't know what chemicals to look for.  There are hundreds of possibilities, so this loophole makes it practically impossible for people to protect themselves. 

Attempts to close the Halliburton Loophole at the national level have been stalled in Congress for years. Some states have taken up the issue and passed various disclosure requirements, but most allow companies to label some of the chemicals as "proprietary information" and keep their identity a secret. 

In 2011 industry teamed up with the Ground Water Protection Council to create a national public registry of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing at specific well sites.  Called FracFocus, it has a search interface that lets users find a well by location, and pull up a sheet of information on that well called a Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Product Component Information Disclosure.  Sounds pretty impressive, doesn't it?  An Obama administration official just gave FracFocus the thumbs up, saying
As an administration, we believe that FracFocus is an important tool that provides transparency to the American people -- Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, during questions after a luncheon speech to the Natural Gas Roundtable in Washington, D.C.
But....once again, the devil is in the details.  It turns out FracFocus ain't all it's cracked up to be.  Participation in the site by industry is entirely voluntary.  Publication of the information typically happens long after the fracking operation is completed, essentially eliminating the possibility that homeowners can test their water in advance to legally establish a pre-fracking baseline to protect themselves. And industry is still allowed to keep the identities of some chemicals secret, which is pretty much the opposite of "transparent."

Last week, our Frack Family blog post and video show that for one recent Pennsylvania fracking operation reported on FracFocus, over half of the chemicals used (by weight) are unidentified.  This week we decided to investigate further to see if we could come up with an overall disclosure rate on FracFocus, multiplying the reporting rate (the percentage of fracking operations that have reports in FracFocus) by the chemical disclosure rate (the percentage of chemicals identified in those reports).  By the way, FracFocus is intentionally designed to make this kind of analysis and performance-measurement tedious and very difficult - even industry recognizes these limitations.   So we threw the problem to some trusty interns. Yolandita and David collected spud reports from the state of Pennsylvania identifying all the new Marcellus Shale horizontal gas wells drilled in the first six months of 2011, and combed FracFocus for all the reports corresponding to those newly drilled and presumably fracked wells.  Here's what Yolandita found:

There were 734 spuds (drilling starts) between January and June of 2011 that were both Marcellus and Horizontal, reported to the Pennsylvania DEP as of May 2012. Of the 734 reports, 396 or 54% of them reported a Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Product Component Information Disclosure to FracFocus.
Of the 396 reports, we took a random sample of 50 reports. Of that 50, we could only determine a chemical disclosure rate for 45 of the reports. We calculated the amount of disclosed chemicals vs. undisclosed chemicals by weight, not including water and sand, to determine a disclosure rate. The disclosure rate of the sample averaged 81%.
If 54% of the spuds have a report on, and, on average, 81% of chemicals are disclosed, then approximately 43% of chemicals in all the fracks in PA are actually being disclosed.

Mr. President, I think an overall average chemical disclosure rate of 43% doesn't provide transparency to the American people.  Any homeowner who relies on well water sure would like to know what's in the other 57%.  Will it take national legislation to make that happen?  Or are we resigned to a balkanized mess of differing state-by-state rules and regulations?

Or -- will industry make legislation unnecessary by stepping up to the plate and doing the right thing?  After all, if drilling and fracking are not causing water contamination (and as Exxon's CEO suggests, we're all just a bunch of illiterate, lazy fools being manipulated by fear-mongering enviros) then industry has nothing at all to fear from giving homeowners the information they need, when they need it, to effectively monitor their drinking water.

Right?  So what's the holdup?  Because 43% just doesn't cut it.

Wildfires and Gas Wells - Pine Ridge Fire, Colorado

Wildfire season is off to a roaring start.  Large fires are burning in several Rocky Mountain states.  Check the US Forest Service's National Fire Detection Maps to see the latest nationwide.  These fires are detected by the MODIS sensor carried on the Terra and Aqua satellites, as well as other sensors. Here's what's happening in Colorado right now:

Map of Colorado showing active fires (red and yellow patches) detected by satellite sensors on June 27, 2012.  Source:  US Forest Service - Active Fire Mapping Program.
Of course, there are also tens of thousands of oil and natural gas wells in Colorado.  The red spot in western Colorado on the map above caught our eye.  That's the new Pine Ridge fire, and it happens to fall within the Piceance Basin, one of the nation's most active natural-gas plays. Gas drilling with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) took off here in the 1980s and has been booming ever since.

Zooming in on the Pine Ridge fire (below), we've plotted active oil and gas wells as blue dots.  This is old data we collected way back in April 2008, so there are probably additional wells in the area now that we're not showing.  Look closely at the imagery in Google Earth or Google Maps and I'll bet you can see a few.  The red and orange squares indicate active fire detections from MODIS since 7:45am MDT yesterday. That means fire was burning somewhere within each square, but not necessarily covering the whole colored area.

We don't know what happens if a wildfire burns in close proximity to natural gas wells and pipelines (got any stories you can share with our readers?). Vegetation should be regularly cleared away from those facilities so they're not endangered. The web of access roads might even make it easier for fire crews to get to the scene.  But the presence of wellheads, pipelines, compressor stations and processing facilities that demonstrably leak explosive and flammable natural gas might add some risk to the fire-fighting effort.

As drilling spreads across Western lands, the intersection of wildfire and gas infrastructure will become increasingly common. Let's tighten up that leaky infrastructure to save energy and money, cut pollution, and -- quite possibly -- save lives and property.

Closeup of Pine Ridge fire about 15 miles northeast of Grand Junction, Colorado. Colored squares indicate active fire detected within past 24 hours (June 27, 2012). Blue spots are locations of active oil and gas wells as of April 2008.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Fracking-Related (?) Methane Leak in Tioga County

We're looking for more information on that methane leak problem in Union Township, Tioga County, PA that was reported last week.  Despite a seriously alarming 30-foot geyser of water and methane, the contamination of a drinking water well, and the suspension of activity at Shell gas wells, we've seen no followup news coverage. We're still working on the assumption that a fracking operation, at a new Marcellus Shale natural gas well being completed by Shell, intersected an old abandoned oil well that apparently wasn't in the state DEP's database.  By the way, that database contains information on 8,000 or so "known" abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania (we mapped 'em).  Possibly as many as 100,000 other abandoned wells are lurking out there, somewhere. After all, commercial oil production first began here back in the mid-1800s, long before there were state agencies and regulations and databases that we take for granted now.

We did a search on the PA DEP's spud reports website to learn more about the three new wells that Shell reportedly shut down when the leak was discovered.  They are the Guindon wells shown in the table below. Drilling apparently began on all three in late January of this year (you can only drill one well at a time on a single well pad, so I'm not sure these so-called spud reports are telling us when the drilling actually got underway):

Spud reports for wells drilled in Union Township, Tioga County since January 1, 2012. Data from PA DEP website.

We plugged the Guindon wells into Google Earth to see where they're located.  Here's the area as it appeared in 2008, before any drilling-related activity began.  Looks like a typical bucolic northern Pennsylvania scene: small roads, dirt lanes, fields and a house:

Google Earth aerial survey photography of the area as it looked in 2008, before drilling.

Here's the same area in late 2010, after a 7-acre well pad has been built, dwarfing the nearby homesite. The beige spots in the newly mown fields on the left are probably hay barrels.  The locations of the Guindon wells that were drilled this year are marked:

Google Earth view of Shell's Guindon drill site as it looked in 2010, with 7-acre well pad installed but before the wells were drilled.  Well locations are marked for reference.

Let us know if you learn anything about the causes or consequences of this incident - submit a comment to this blog post, or contact us.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Methane Geyser in PA: Shell Fracking Operation Suspected

EcoWatch reports that the Pennsylvania DEP is investigating a suspected methane migration problem which caused a 30-foot-tall methane-driven geyser to erupt from the side of a local road, and contaminated a water well at a hunting cabin in Union Township.

The suspected source of the methane is a frack site operated by Shell on the Guindon farm in Union Township

NPR reports that Tioga County Emer­gency Ser­vices Coor­di­na­tor Denny Cole­grove suspects that an unmapped, aban­doned gas well more than 70 years old is part of the problem.

The geyser is  now under control, and evacuation is being planned for residents within a 1-mile radius. Shell is flaring gas [video] from several wellsites in the vicinity in an attempt to lower pressure and reduce the methane leaks at the surface. (We're not sure why this would work; it suggests all of these wells are in communication with each other, the gas reservoir, and the surface -- a highly undesirable situation.  Can anyone explain?)

If the cause is determined to be a fracking operation intersecting an unmapped, improperly abandoned well, then this is great concern for the future of fracking in a state that is littered with thousands of abandoned wells.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bilge Dumping? Busted Using Satellite Images and AIS Data

Remember that 92-mile-long bilge dump off Congo and Angola that caught our attention back in April?

Envisat ASAR satellite radar image showing bilge-dump slick (long dark streak) off Angola on April 6, 2012. Image courtesy European Space Agency.
The bright spot at the left end of the slick is likely the vessel that caused it.  But the ASAR imagery left an important question unanswered: Who was responsible for this pollution?

With the generous help of our new partners, SpaceQuest, new information has surfaced that helps put a name on that bright spot:  the Dona Liberta, a refrigerated cargo ship owned by NaviFruit LTD. This vessel has made unfortunate news in the past.  On July 4, 2011, the ship's captain dumped two Tanzanian stowaways in Liberia’s territorial waters, strapped to empty barrels. One of the stowaways died while receiving medical treatment after washing up on shore. In November 2011 the vessel was laid up in the River Fal in England, stranding two Romanian watchmen on board in unsanitary conditions who were rescued by a charitable organization. And in February 2012, the Dona Liberta spilled 70-90 gallons of oil in the River Fal, prompting a cleanup response from local authorities.

The Dona Liberta, courtesy of © Juan B
So how did we figure this out?

Read all about it after the jump....

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Video: Meet The Frack Family

If you haven't met the Frack Family yet, check out this video!

SkyTruth Reports: Meet The Frack Family from SkyTruth on Vimeo.
Yolandita presents the imaginary Frack Family and their dog Rocky of Beaver County, PA who help us to visualize the staggering quantity of chemicals that were used in a typical frack job (hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction) near their imaginary house in the Marcellus Shale region of western Pennsylvania.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Meet The Frack Family

If you've read our "What's In My Frack Fluid" article, posted by David last week, you were probably  disturbed to find out how much of the ingredients used in a typical hydraulic fracturing operation are unknown. We thought it might be a good idea to illustrate what 133 tons of chemicals (including 65 tons of unknown chemicals) looks like. So Paul and I got to work in Google Sketchup creating the Frack Family. The Fracks are an imaginary family who live near the very real Marcellus Shale natural-gas drilling and  fracking site in Beaver County, Pennsylvania featured in David's blog post. They agreed to let Chesapeake Energy store all the chemicals that were used at this frack site right on their lawn... such a sweet family.

We uploaded the Frack Family into Google Earth Pro and took some screenshots to help you visualize how much chemicals are being used, and more disturbingly, how much of those chemicals are what David calls "mystery" chemicals.

The imaginary Frack Family at their Beaver County home, with fracking chemicals stacked up in 42-gallon barrels on their front lawn.

We'll start off with an introduction to the Fracks and their dog, Rocky. Above, you can see them standing by a glowing green 42-gallon barrel that represents the 380 pounds of Ammonium Persulfate used in the fracking solution and a few of the 32 lavender colored barrels that represent nearly 6 tons of Potassium Hydroxide.

As we back up, shown below, you'll notice 235 blue barrels to the right of the Fracks. These barrels represent the 41 tons of Hydrogen Chloride used to make hydrochloric acid.

The imaginary Frack Family at their Beaver County home, showing the 384 barrels of known chemicals used to frack the well near their house.

Finally, the Frack Family would like to show you the amount of chemicals for which no Chemical Abstract Service numbers are disclosed on the ingredients list -- which is voluntarily provided by Chesapeake Energy Appalachia LLC via These "mystery" chemicals are represented below by 373 bright red barrels and weigh a total of approximately 65 tons. That is about half of all the chemicals used for this one fracking job, which is 1.7% of the total weight of the mixture used (the other 98.3% by weight being water and sand). We cannot be sure exactly what these chemicals are... but it's only less than 1% of the frack job, right?

The imaginary Frack Family at their Beaver County home, showing off the 757 barrels of chemicals used to frack the well near their house - including 373 barrels of "mystery" chemicals.

Joking aside: all of these chemicals had to be trucked onto the drilling site.  That's a lot of truckloads of chemicals, including hundreds of barrels of unknown substances, being hauled (in a hurry) over typically small, light-duty, winding country roads, past homes, businesses, and schools. That's pretty serious.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Drilling off Cuba, Drilling in the Arctic - And No Monitoring Capability. Really?!

Soapbox time!

Here at SkyTruth we've been concerned about the loss of the world's premier tool for offshore monitoring with the demise of the European Space Agency's excellent Envisat satellite in early April.  The successor, Sentinel, won't be launched until sometime next year at the earliest.  Meanwhile, we do have alternatives:  RADARSAT, Cosmo-SkyMed, and TerraSAR-X.  But these are all commercially operated systems and the images range in price from about $1200 to as much as $7500, making them prohibitively expensive for routine monitoring of large areas in the open ocean.  

Envisat ASAR radar image showing precise location of Scarabeo-9 drill rig in Cuban waters of Florida Straits.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.
This is all an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of the fact that, for reasons we can't fathom, the US has decided not to operate any civilian radar imaging satellites.  We led the world in this technology with the launch of SeaSat back in 1978, but now we're dependent on foreign-operated systems.  We consider this a national security fail of a high order: radar imaging satellites are a key tool for establishing and maintaining maritime domain awareness, and effectively managing and protecting our nation's vast ocean territory. Maybe the National Reconnaissance Office has a couple of extra radar spy satellites lying around that they could donate to NASA for civilian use.  The intelligence agencies seem to have plenty of $$ to build more toys than they can use while NASA's satellite program is starving for cash. But I digress...

The BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico highlighted the value of satellite imagery for independently assessing the size and severity of the spill, tracking the day-to-day movement of the oil slicks, and identifying the ocean and coastal areas directly impacted by the oil.  Our work since then has demonstrated the value of radar imagery in particular for detecting bilge-dumping from oceangoing vessels, a major source of marine pollution worldwide; for detecting vessels that may be operating illegally in areas that are off-limits to fishing; and for comparing the pollution as reported by polluters, with what we can actually observe.  

Now companies from around the world are rushing to do deepwater drilling in Cuban waters close to Florida, with no agreement in place that will allow US companies to assist in the event of a major oil spill. Pemex, the state oil company of Mexico, has announced plans to begin high-risk ultra-deepwater drilling in the Gulf despite their alarming lack of deepwater expertise.  Drilling is set to begin as soon as July in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska, raising a host of questions about the impact of day-to-day pollution in that sensitive environment and our ability to effectively clean up an oil spill in typical Arctic ice and weather conditions, far from bases of operation.  And, as SkyTruth and our Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners have demonstrated, we continue to have spills every day in the Gulf of Mexico that are unreported, underreported, and rarely investigated: a continuing moral hazard of tolerating sloppy operations that, in our opinion, sets the stage for the next chain of error that leads to a catastrophic spill. 

Shell's Kulluk drill rig under tow, set to drill in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska this summer.  Source:
Now, more than ever, we need a public source of routine radar images for all of these areas to allow everyone to see what's happening, to provide assurance that there are no undue environmental problems associated with these innately risky developments, and to stand ready to immediately swing into action to support response efforts should a serious accident occur. 

We call on the US government to work with the commercial radar image companies to provide a publicly accessible stream of radar imagery until Sentinel, or some other radar imaging system, fills the big monitoring gap left by the demise of Envisat.  We would gladly participate in discussions to help make this happen, and soon.  

July is not very far off. And to let drilling proceed in the Arctic Ocean without a transparent, public monitoring system and spill-response tool in place strikes us as both reckless and irresponsible:  a needless escalation of the risks involved with drilling, and a willful disregard of the concerns that have been voiced by tens of thousands of Americans.  Let's fix this problem now.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pennsylvania Frack Flight a Big Success

The whole team is back in the office today after another successful expedition to Frack Country in north-central PA.  Here's a quick summary of the mission.  Video, 100s of photos and results of our monitoring will be published soon.

Last time we went out in the field we focused on the Wysox and Meshoppen watersheds in the upper Susquehanna River Basin, but we never got the chance to fly over the Pine Creek watershed.

This time we greatly expanded our effort, coordinating our trip with project partners The Downstream Project,  several local watershed monitoring groups in Tioga and Potter counties, and Jim Weaver, director of the Tioga County Planning Commission, who came along for the ride with us in the plane.  In a 4-seat Cessna, provided to us by our good friends at LightHawk, volunteer LightHawk pilot Jamie Gamble flew in from Massachusetts to take us on a 3-hour flight over threatened forest land in 4 counties while we captured video and about 750 photos of fracking sites situated in Pennsylvania State Forest lands.

While the "skytruthing" team was in the air, the rest of the crew did a little "groundtruthing" by visiting and photographing drilling sites with the greatest potential to negatively impact state forest and the headwaters flowing into Pine Creek which have so far largely escaped damage from spills and runoff caused by Marcellus Shale fracking and drilling activity.  Bryn Hammerstrom of the Pine Creek Waterdogs was our tireless host and guide, and local retired USGS Ecologist Bob Ross took us out into the streams to show us how the Waterdogs are routinely sampling water quality at sites throughout the watershed.

The next day SkyTruth and The Downstream Project were invited to present our mission to the Pine Creek Watershed Council where we showed them aerial photos from the flight.  During that meeting the council was able to identify from the photos a previously unknown chronic water pollution problem, and also a suspected permit violation at the site of a gas pipeline compressor station.  After the meeting we got right back out into the field in Potter County with Bob Volkmar of God's Country Trout Unlimited, who gave a demonstration of the Trout Unlimited water quality monitoring protocol to SkyTruth interns Yolandita Franklin and David Donohue.