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Local News

April 12, 2013

FracMapper pinpoints local gas/oil drilling

Non-profit updates data online for free

BUTLER, MERCER COUNTY AREAS — Searching the Internet for the most accurate and updated information on local gas and oil drilling is confusing for many people, but a nonprofit has stepped up to make that data available in an easy-to-read format.

Pittsburgh-based FracTracker Alliance is constantly reviewing records from the state Department of Environmental Protection and other watchdog agencies and loading the information onto a mapping system available to the public at www.fractracker.org

"It's really tough as an outsider," Sam Malone, the group's manager of science and communications, said of the average person trying to collect and interpret various types of drilling information on their own.

FracTracker Alliance, the Mountain Watershed Association and Marcellus Outreach Butler on March 26 hosted a two-hour training session at Slippery Rock University, where about a dozen people learned to navigate FracMapper, the online tool that provides information on shale extraction operations.

FracTracker Alliance, which has no official stance on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," started in 2010 at the University of Pittsburgh and has since branched out on its own, providing drilling data on many states including Pennsylvania, Malone said.

Fracking has made it possible to tap into energy reserves across the nation but also has raised concerns about pollution, since large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected deep into the ground to free the oil and gas from rock.

The gas and oil industry is rapidly progressing with drilling activities, and the regulatory agencies aren't always prompt in providing updated records that are easily accessible to the public, said Kathryn Hilton, community organizer with the Watershed Association, which helps administer FracMapper.

"They have a lot of stuff still on paper," Malone said of agencies like DEP.

Those who run FracMapper are doing so to educate the public and provide them with tools and support to learn more about drilling permits issued, locations of unconventional wells and violations connected to gas and oil companies, Hilton and Malone said.

They focused on the Pennsylvania maps, which are updated at least once a month, and the training session was held in a computer lab so everyone could follow along at a desk.

Google Chrome is the best Internet browser to view FracMapper, said Malone, who zoomed in on Butler County, showing how the purple shading is Marcellus Shale and the tan is Utica Shale.

Dots appeared on the map, each color indicating a different category: orange means unconventional wells drilled; purple means well permits issued; and yellow means a violation was issued.

Clicking on a dot brings up a box that provides details including: permit number; when the permit was issued; name of the operator; last name of the property owner; municipality location; and violation information, if any.

"They have to apply for each permit separately," Malone said of how one dot could represent multiple well permits on one drill site.

The map can be viewed numerous ways by removing or adding "layers," or categories, by using the toolbar on the right. For example, if you want to view only wells that had violations, check the "Violations" box only, and the yellow dots will appear on the map.

The map itself can also be changed to show land from an aerial view photograph or in a street-map format, showing the user which roads surround a drill site location; use the "Base Map" option on the toolbar.

Other tools include: measuring property sizes or distances between properties; saving and sharing a screen shot of the map; and a "Search" option for entering an address to find a well, one of several features the group is still working on to make it more user-friendly, Malone said.

Hilton noted that every drill site should have a mailbox-type container that has paperwork on the property and its activities, and anyone can review those documents.

"That information is required to be there," she said, adding you should contact the DEP if those papers are missing, which is considered a violation.

Even more information can be found by clicking on "About" in the toolbar while you have a drill site box pulled up -- there will be links to the websites where FracTracker Alliance obtained its data.

Several people at the training session questioned serious violations, which Malone said seem to be on the decline.

DEP and other regulators contend that overall, water and air pollution problems related to fracking are rare, but environmental groups and some scientists say there hasn't been enough research on those issues. The industry and many federal and state officials say the practice is safe when done properly, but faulty wells and accidents have caused problems.

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