Oil and gas companies may have the money to pay research analysts for quality data, but public interests have the numbers on their side.

Several crowdsourcing efforts have sprung up to generate, hone or analyze data about shale gas development in Pennsylvania, and they all rely on volunteers to contribute time and knowledge.

As more people participate, the information, whether it’s about environmental impacts, traffic counts or lease terms, gets refined, and a broader picture emerges — one that is available to the public for free.

SkyTruth’s FrackFinder

Since 2002, SkyTruth, a West Virginia-based nonprofit, has been using the copious amounts of publicly available aerial and satellite images collected as frequently as twice a day from every point on earth to diagnose and chronicle environmental concerns. It has tracked landscapes that are changing because of strip mining coal, oil spills and natural gas flares in shale fields.

In FrackFinder, a project launched last year, SkyTruth wrote an algorithm to parse through data from state regulatory agencies in Pennsylvania and Ohio and developed a tool that would enable volunteers to easily identify well pads and frack ponds, which are giant man-made lagoons where oil and gas companies keep either freshwater or wastewater from drilling and fracking. SkyTruth then engaged volunteers to go through aerial images of these sites.

Another effort, Project Dart Frog required seven out of 10 people to agree that an object was a frack pond before it would be considered as a candidate and verified internally.

A few hundred volunteers scanned the images and what emerged was a map of 529 ponds in 2013, showing an increase from just 11 such impoundments in Pennsylvania in 2005. It also showed the ballooning size of such ponds over the years.

The findings, released in October, already are being used by researchers at Johns Hopkins University who are studying the health impacts of living close to shale gas development sites.

SkyTruth calls its FrackFinder approach “‘armchair citizen science’ that you can do from the comfort of your own home.”


FracTracker’s Truck Counts Project

For some time, The FracTracker Alliance, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that maps and analyzes public datasets about oil and gas activity, has been getting calls from citizens and communities looking for data on the traffic impact of shale development.

According to Sam Malone, FracTracker’s manager of education, communications and partnerships, the callers wanted hard statistics showing what they observed anecdotally — when wells are drilled in a specific area, the volume of truck traffic surrounding that area swells.

Following a similar approach developed by FracTracker and Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab to count oil trains, FracTracker drafted a tally sheet and trained volunteers how to identify oil- and gas-related trucks.

Last summer, volunteers used the tool to record shale industry traffic at 13 sites across four states, counting every relevant truck that passed during an average observation period of one hour. Now, those volunteers, who are pushing for policy changes in their communities, come to public meetings armed with data. FracTracker is on its way towards aggregating that data to better gauge the impact of Marcellus and other shale plays on road congestion.

It’s still a work in progress, Ms. Malone cautioned. “In the next year, we hope to have a really good comprehensive database of truck counts.”



Unlike SkyTruth and FracTracker, which are cautious about if not outright opposed to shale gas development, GoMarcellusShale.com is an enthusiastic proponent. The site is one of a series — it started with GoHaynesvilleShale.com — of shale-themed forums for landowners to swap stories about companies moving into the area and developments in the field.

Its strength is in the specifics. In good, old-fashioned message boards, landowners and landmen talk about the details of leases, teasing out the going rates for bonuses and royalties in a given area and conferring on contract terms offered by companies.

“When you sell mineral rights/royalties, is it treated like real estate?” began a recent thread. “If so, can you reinvest this money into like property to avoid paying taxes?”

“I sold some minerals in Western Guernsey county in 2012 for ($)5,000/acre. No rig behind, and now the area is dead. Wish I would’ve sold all 200 acres rather than half. Just like any other business these guys aren't always right,” a commenter posted on Dec. 10.

The site has about 20,000 members, all of whom are encouraged by Keith Mauck, the sites’ founder and publisher writes on the website, to “have fun ‘shaling.’”


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Congratulations Keith.  This site is a godsend for us mineral owners.  It helps level the playing field.  The article should have put GMS at the top!




Nice to see you get some good pub.  And that a site that is pro-drilling gets covered instead of ignored.

As for the others, they said that frac water ponds went from 11 in 2005 to 529 in 2013 is some biased reporting  I would like to see the change from 2011 to 2013 as most companies now use tanks and don't build ponds.  I suspect that is dueo to lazy reporting using data supplied by the antis instead of doing some research.

And I suspect that this is damage control by denial.

Jim, they got their numbers by looking at Google maps. We all know Google doesn't update images every 6 months or year.... so they counted ponds that probably weren't in existence or being used anymore. Since the numbers supported their agenda they didn't think about that.

Actually, they used Landsat images, which are updated in near-real time.

Google also uses Landsat, but the average image is 3 years old.  They have a lot more to do than just take pictures.  

The study set a threshold of 7 out of 10 volunteers agreeing, in order for the pond to make the database.

Why didn't they break out the pond use as produced or freshwater? It could be done with the permit information available. That would have a much larger bearing on the subject than just counting ponds. I would think if this subject is really that important to them they would have paid more attention to what really matters.

They have been drilling on and off in our county for 4 years and the few ponds here are ALL freshwater. 

Produced water ponds should not be allowed from my perspective.... and I don't think you will find very many, if any, being built nowadays....at least in Pa.

I don't believe for a second that Landsat updates images anywhere near real time and are available to the public real time as well, sorry.

Regardless, the point is that yes there are produced water ponds but how many we still don't know even with this study.

They tried.  O&G refuses inspection, and the PDEP could (or would) not provide the information.

We believe what we want to believe.  (Near real-time)




Subject to input from those better informed than myself, I do not believe produced water impoundments are today permitted here in PA.  Only fresh water impoundments are permitted.

I can tell you from personal experience, there are no produced water impoundments near to where I live.  We do have a freshwater impoundment here, less than a mile away.  It has never been a problem in any regard.

My best knowledge is that produced water impoundments were once allowed in PA, some years ago.  They were a threat to the environment and were, in my view, a catastrophe.  If I'm wrong, and if produced water impoundments still are permitted here in PA, they should be shut down forthwith.

For the sake of clarity, let's get the terminology right:

The water is called 'flowback' for the first 30 days.

After thatit's called 'produced water'.

Whatever.  I don't think my terminology was an issue, or was especially important, for others;  only for you.  And you don't even live in PA.

If I'm wrong about existence of produced water impoundments today in PA, though, that would be of interest to me to know.  I hope someone with actual knowledge will correct me if I'm in error.

On the contrary, I believe that accuracy is paramount in situations such as these.  As I've stated previously, this is a public forum.  My responses and challenges to the misinformation that appears here are for the consumption of those like myself; non-O&G types who are here to try to avoid being snowed by this same dishonesty and deception.  I hold no hope of changing closed minds such as yours, nor the industry overall.

I fail to see what the locale has to do with anything.

I'm shocked that you hold a view contrary to my own.  After all, your posts are customarily so accepting of others' opinions.  I must simply have caught you temporarily awry.  What bad luck to find you out of sorts!  I hope as time passes you will claw your way back to your old, congenial, self.


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