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.
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.’”