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Q&A: ProPublica and the Gazette-Mail’s Guide to Every Natural Gas Well in WV

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Screenshot of the imaging tool used by ProPublica in "A Guide to Every Permitted Natural Gas Well in West Virginia." 2019

In West Virginia, natural gas is booming. For landowners, natural gas development on private land previously meant hidden wells in the woods, which may have been a minor nuisance for those on the surface. But the advent of a drilling process called horizontal drilling now allows producers to drill for miles underground in all directions from a single point. In 2006, the state had issued only a dozen total horizontal well permits. As of last year, that total had reached over 5,000, according to data from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

In order to build horizontal wells, gas producers must first clear acres of rural landscape, bringing loud and disruptive trucks, machinery and construction to previously calm rural areas. Until 2011, there weren’t many restrictions on where natural gas producers could put well pads. Now, regulations only dictate a 625-foot buffer from homes from the center of the well pad, meaning the large well pads themselves could end up much closer than that to dwellings. This disruptive construction can still happen on public land, near schools, or on private property where landowners don’t have mineral rights, disrupting their quality of life and the utility of the land itself.

In their recent deep-dive into the issue, “A Guide to Every Permitted Natural Gas Well in West Virginia,” ProPublica and the Charleston Gazette-Mail used software to show in detail aerial imagery of as many as 1,500 of these well pads. 100 Days in Appalachia spoke with Gazette-Mail reporter Kate Mishkin and ProPublica news applications developer Al Shaw about the process that went into creating this monumental report, and their hopes and predictions for the future of this industry.

100 Days in Appalachia: Why did you feel like creating this tool was necessary? What information does it provide that people don’t already have access to?

Al Shaw: We did a project at the end of last year called Powerless with the Gazette-Mail about the impacts of gas drilling on residents, and kind of what it’s like living near this kind of development. But that project was super anecdotal, and was really based around a couple individual cases. After doing that, I was kind of left with questions about what the scale was across the state. I just started with that question and went down the rabbit hole in the data that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) provides. As I discovered how they did these things I wanted to show and tell people how big they are, and how many of them are there there are. So as I did that, I kind of came across a couple techniques to extract aerial imagery from data and kind of come up with the idea of just showing every single well they had, because they’re all acres wide. The key was showing the cumulative effect of drilling across the state, because that’s how large how large footprint has.

Kate Mishkin: It kind of like, well, we have this anecdotal story, right before the legislature started. So I think the question on my end was, what are people going to do about it? Not a lot, it turns out.

100 DiA: What were some of the challenges of creating such heavily data-driven report?

AS: The DEP data doesn’t have a concept of a well pad in it, it only has the concept of well permits. I learned when I was doing the Powerless story that the data can sometimes be out of date, too. So it’s kind of hard to tell which wells are active, or which was completed, or which wells are in the process of being built. So there’s some data challenges there. I started with just this data set of well permits, and then had to come up with a way of clustering them together to find the pads, because the well pads are really a bunch of wells in a pretty tight location, set up in a cluster. I had to match them in a geospatial database. The next big challenge was trying to figure out how to get the aerial imagery from those clusters. And thankfully, there’s this thing called Google Earth Engine, which is really powerful tool for programmatically processing large amounts of aerial and satellite imagery. One of the data sets they offer is dataset called the USDA NAIP, which is the national agriculture imagery program. It’s this really cool free data set, where they take pretty high resolution images of the entire country every couple years. Using Google Earth Engine, you can tap into anywhere in the country and get a radius around point.  What we did was we we set in all of the points that were the center of these clusters of well permits into Google Earth Engine, and came up with these 1,500 images. And you can kind of see them in all stages of development, because the imagery might be too old to see the development started. Some of them are fully completed, where you can see the roads spider out from them, and you can really see the kind of impact they have on the environment. Each one of these images has a 250 meter radius. So you can really tell how big these developments are—they’re acres wide. And when you compare them to the way gas wells used to look, you see what they look like before horizontal drilling, like they wouldn’t even show up on these images. They’d be the size of a pixel. So the difference in scale is just exponential from what they used to be. And there’s 1,500 of these.

100 DiA: What about this study or its findings surprised you?

KM: I didn’t realize how history just repeated itself. Since these studies. These studies were completed in 2013, but the same bills have been presented over and over every single year, sometimes by the same people. It seems like in some cases, they were kind of handed off onto a different group of lawmakers. Repeatedly, it’s just never been acted on. It’s kind of interesting to talk to some lawmakers who are like, “Oh, yes, I forgot about that,” or, “Oh, yeah, there’s something there, maybe we should act on it.”

AS: It’s interesting how quickly all this happened. In 2008, there weren’t any of these pads. And so in the course of 10 years, the amount of space devoted to to natural gas development in West Virginia has just exploded. Each one, on average, is 2.4 acres now, and that’s about double what they what they were in 2007. It’s just a massive amount of space given up to two gas drilling. And we know that they they don’t produce forever, but that scar will be there forever. There’s not a whole lot of regulation. That was the law that was passed in 2011 which put some restrictions on where you put the pads. But that law didn’t put any restrictions on pads next to schools or other sensitive areas like public land, and so there’s still not a whole lot of restrictions on where you can put these.

100 DiA: Have you talked to people directly affected by having gas wells on their properties? If so, what did they say? Were there any comments that weren’t included in the court cases?

KM:  In the Powerless story that kind of preceded this one, we spoke with a lot of people about some of that information that up in in the record and in court. I think it’s worth noting that these cases are still being played out. One is being heard by the Supreme Court this week. One of the residents said that living near a site is like living next to Mountaineer Field. It’s something that people here probably know very acutely what that looks like. And that’s something that other people may not think.

100 DiA: Lawyers for the Harrison plaintiffs say that this kind of development was never contemplated when mineral rights were sold a century ago. Can you speak more on that?

AS: So when we were reporting the previous story, a lot of the people we talked to, who don’t own the mineral rights told us that they knew natural gas development was going on on their land. For them it didn’t really matter at the time because of how light the footprint was. There might be a well up in the forest somewhere, and someone might come out and check on it now and then, but it really didn’t affect their lives. They could still do their farming, they still have their forests, they could go hiking, and they still you had their water sources. But with the advent of horizontal drilling, all of that kind of changes, because it wasn’t just that well up in the forest that someone comes and looks at every now and then—now it’s putting in a huge road, taking down trees, flattening the hilltop, putting in a gigantic gravel pad, constant truck traffic, constant drilling. It’s a much different process. It’s turning what would be a rural peaceful town into a industrial zone. So I think that’s what some of these plaintiffs are getting at with this idea of the contemplation of the parties that back then—maybe this kind of industrialization of the landscape wasn’t contemplated when they sold mineral rights. There is still this idea of the surface owner being able to use the land for for their needs without completely turning it over to the gas drilling or to whoever owned the mineral rights to do with what they want it.

100 DiA: I was shocked to read that as horizontal drilling technology gets better, well pads are getting bigger. Can you explain more about how developments in this industry could mean harsher effects for those on affected land?

AS: Some surface owners say that the centralized well pads are actually a lighter touch on the environment than having a whole bunch of dispersed well pads, or that they have a lesser effect on individual people, because there’s only one pad rather than pads everywhere. But then that means that there’s kind of a disproportionate impact on the people that are next to those pads. And the impact is cumulative, so it’s pretty much greater. It is a bit of a trade off from lots of vertical wells everywhere to to individual centralized centralized pads. But it is it does have a much bigger footprint and requires much more reconstruction more heavy machinery, and more of kind of all the stuff that comes along with rapid industrialization. And I only expect that’ll get bigger as the technology gets better.

100 DiA: Passed the statistics quoted in the piece, what are your predictions for the long-term impacts of this gas boom on WV’s people? Is another bust approaching?

KM: I think a lot of experts will say that there is a bust coming, and a lot of those jobs are temporary jobs. When we talk about what was like fathomable or contemplated in the past, I wonder what is going to be in the future that I can’t even contemplate right now? Or we’re not thinking about interest as far as construction and energy and stuff like that. I think that I think a lot of people would say that it’s not as rosy as it as the industry maybe wants folks to think it is.

100 DiA: What are your hopes for the future use of this tool? What could be accomplished with it?

AS: I hope that people can use it as a tool to really see what’s going on there. And especially people outside West Virginia that might not know that that’s where their energy is coming from. There’s so much resource development. I’m not super confident because of how captured the legislature and the Supreme Court are right now that much will change, but hopefully it will raise raise awareness and it’ll be a good resource for people in the state to find out where the development is near them. Because a lot of people, even if they live near wells might not know how extensive the development is around them.

100 DiA: What about your call to action—what do you hope to gain from folks reaching out with their experiences?

AS: The call to action to hear more from people affected by this story is something that’s been at the bottom of every Local Reporting Network story that we did last year. And I think it’s already proven to be really helpful because we don’t want to just put something in the newspaper and forget about it. We want to be able to actually talk to the people who are affected and make sure that we’re engaging with these people and these communities. There’s so much to report on, and it’s constantly evolving.

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