As part of the first phase of research into environmental monitoring, the Citizen Sense project has undertaken fieldwork to learn about the practices, technologies, and participants involved in monitoring at sites of natural gas production in Pennsylvania.
Above is the view from the B&B in which one Citizen Sense researcher stayed during a first night of fieldwork in rural Pennsylvania. The view is of an unconventional natural gas well. This well utilises an extractive technique known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, in which water, sand, and a proprietary mix of chemicals are pounded into deep shale formations to release their reserves of natural gas. The round-the-clock activity, including a constant stream of freight-truck traffic and the din of heavy machinery, is hard to miss. Yet, in the record books of state regulators many of these sites are nowhere to be found.
Pennsylvania has a long history of oil and gas extraction. The world’s first oil well was drilled there in 1859. Since then, some 350,000 wells have been drilled in the state—30 times the amount that have been drilled in the UK. The whereabouts of 7,200 unconventional wells and about 130,000 conventional wells are known by government agencies. For some of these wells, locational data were never collected, while others were simply capped—or not capped—and left in the woods. When one of the stewards of a fracking data clearinghouse was asked how many unconventional natural gas wells were present in Pennsylvania, he smiled and replied, “it’s a philosophical question.” He said it was common to find wells permitted in Texas to have official latitudes and longitudes in Wyoming, several states away. Even the most straightforward enumerative practices of natural gas extraction are overflowing with unexpected complexity and bewildering collection methods.
In a similar way, assessments of the irregular, fleeting and dynamic impacts of natural gas extraction on ambient air quality are no less complex and difficult to determine. A mesh of pipelines, condensate tanks, frack chemical impoundments and compressor stations assemble into landscapes of natural gas extraction. At every step along the course of this infrastructure, chemicals can leak into the air or be released intentionally as permitted emissions. Monitoring activities undertaken by any number of corporate, governmental or advocacy groups in different ways may struggle to give a clear indication of what is in the air.
An environmental lawyer interviewed in the course of this fieldwork found that the Pennsylvania Department for Environmental Protection’s (DEP) estimation of airborne emissions resulting from unconventional natural gas compressor sites to be “impossibly low.” Not just under-estimated but “several orders of magnitude lower than they could possibly achieve or that I had ever seen anywhere in any permit or any stack test anywhere.” As suggested by this investigator, the air quality described by official records of environmental pollution was a world beyond chemical and mechanical feasibility. This specific assertion of annual industry emissions emerged out of a compendium of 300 spreadsheets with multiple tabs. An environmental advocacy organization employed a programmer to write a python script to convert this unwieldy dataset into a comprehensible format. Without such an investigation, the multiple realities enacted by this data might have remained one more unquestioned monitoring point.
These contested data practices were central not only to broad summary statistics but also in situ environmental monitoring. In 2011, the Pennsylvania DEP engaged in short-term air monitoring at natural gas well sites. Inspectors utilised FTIR technology to detect NO2—this spectroscopic tool involves shooting a beam across the air to characterise the numerous constituents in the air through which the beam traveled. Using this device as directed, DEP concluded that they found “no pollutants at levels that pose a threat to human health.” Yet the detection limit of the FTIR varies depending on site conditions and at its most sensitive arrangement in this study the detection limit was four times higher than the U.S. Clean Air Act health standard for NO2. In other words, the sensor used would not be able to detect NO2 levels until concentrations reached a level that would exceed air quality guidelines. At this concentration the air would be tinged brown and could irritate mucus membranes and affect human health.
In the case of fracking, environmental monitoring–or even more basic well location data–becomes a wellspring of indeterminate data. At the disjuncture of official monitoring data and the experiences of residents living on the shale field, citizens are then attempting to engage with environmental monitoring to begin to generate evidence that speaks to their particular experiences. This fieldwork has raised multiple questions about what citizen-sensing practices might sense and be able to sense, and within what larger landscape of environmental monitoring might the findings of pollution monitoring be located, questioned, and contested.