New Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Map Still Incomplete

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Pennsylvania DEP Launches Online Oil & Gas Mapping System

What was once a laborious, mishandled process for public access to information about oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania still is… but in the past several years it’s improved ever since unconventional shale drilling (a.k.a. fracking) hit the Keystone State like a rototiller on steroids. And despite a sleek new mapping tool recently launched by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the real secret in the sauce — fracking sauce that is — is still as elusive as ever.

frac_focus_depState and federal regulations continue to allow drillers to keep their fracking mixtures “trade secrets” while also permitting them to pump the poisons into the ground. Sure, some companies report some of the chemicals they use on “Frac Frocus” (Frac Focus) which DEP links to under the Resources tab of its data tool, but what’s a recipe without all the ingredients?

DEP doesn’t control the laws leaders write, it can only enforce them — or not. (For those details see “File Review” below.) So no fracking chemical listings for the well in your backyard, kids. But at least DEP’s Oil and Gas Mapping system does have the state’s Exceptional Value (EV) and High Quality (HQ) waterways as an optional data layer (Check the link for more about drilling waste burial near these sensitive water supplies).

dep_map_frackingWhen a user first visits DEP’s online mapping system, the first thing isn’t a map but a Department disclaimer. This disclaimer also appears on the DEP’s Oil & Gas Reporting Website, where data is presented in tables and spreadsheets. Except there, instead of simply clicking ‘Continue’ one must click ‘Agree’ or ‘Disagree.’

reaches 3 sides of the North American Continent

reaches 3 sides of the North American Continent

DEP’s new mapping system offers yet another bird’s eye view, but it’s nothing new. FracTracker has been mapping DEP’s data for years now, launching a cleaner version of it’s own over a year ago. Then there’s SkyTruth, which like FracTracker maps well violations and other data DEP doesn’t. So why is DEP recreating a wheel (using precious financial resources) that’s been invented several times already?

The Devil’s Details – aka The File Review

All this mapping doesn’t do diddly if you’re trying to understand what’s happening on the ground. Access to inspection and violation reports, gas migration and contamination investigations, waste manifests, test results, citizen complaints, and court orders all have to be gathered at DEP’s office during a “File Review” that takes over a month to schedule, where you have to either scan your files with your own portable scanner and laptop, or pay for copies at $0.10 to $2.00 per page.

“The Devil’s in the details” is an apt phrase for what DEP should be offering the public in terms of access. Maps are amazing tools, and DEP should continue to invest it’s miniscule resources in keeping it updated with the most accurate information at it’s disposal. But government, DEP inspectors and staff, industry, and the public would all benefit from more efficient and appropriate use of modern technology. If industry wants more and more new permits across the state, then perhaps Pennsylvania’s leaders should require the industry to build DEP’s digital infrastructure so any lawmaker, citizen, or oil and gas inspector can access detailed information about each and every oil and gas well from anywhere there’s internet access.

Files from a 2013 Public Herald DEP file review. photo: jbpribanic

Files from a 2013 Public Herald DEP file review. photo: jbpribanic

Pennsylvania’s leadership, and especially the DEP, should also be asking themselves why it’s okay to issue an endless stream of permits to drill and hydrofrack shale gas and oil wells when the accuracy of the data used to monitor operations cannot be guaranteed.

Not In Your Backyard? Think Again…

Let’s say according to DEP’s new map you have no unconventional (fracked) wells in your neighborhood. Fracking doesn’t have to be in your backyard for potential impacts. Just trace your drinking water or food back to its source. You don’t even have to live on the same side of the country to be exposed to the many risks associated with drilling and fracking for oil and natural gas.

Screenshot from the opening scenes of Triple Divide detailing a map of the three drainage basins of Triple Divide in Potter County, Pennsylvania. Water from one mountain drains to three different sides of the eastern continent.

Screenshot from the opening scenes of Triple Divide detailing a map of the three drainage basins of Triple Divide in Potter County, Pennsylvania. Water from one mountain drains to three different sides of the eastern continent.

For a look at how shale drilling in Pennsylvania is playing out, see PH’s documentary Triple Divide. For reports from our file reviews, see our investigative reports. Public Herald is a member-supported, publicly-funded nonprofit. Help us continue our work by becoming a Member. Donors receive rewards, such as our Triple Divide DVD.