Nearly a decade ago, a gas company drilled its first horizontal well in Western Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale.
The gas boom that has since hopscotched across the Keystone State created overnight millionaires, but has also killed fish, polluted drinking water, caused frightening accidents and fragmented the state's famous forests to the point where they may never be repaired.
In the beginning, the public knew little about hydraulic fracturing —nicknamed fracking — the process by which drillers coax gas out of the deep shale. But as time went on, people realized that the process required millions of gallons of water from Pennsylvania streams. The drillers laced the water with chemicals and injected it into the shale under high pressure to crack the shale formations. When the water, or flowback, came back up, it was laden with these chemicals and other minerals it picked up underground. It needed to be stored, recycled or treated.
The state was supposed to monitor the number of wells drilled, document spills and test water for contamination. But the information was often hard to find — it wasn't online, and the understaffed Department of Environmental Protection took days
to return journalists' calls about problem wells.
It was in that environment that FracTracker was born. The online resource (www.fractracker.org) lets people see what wells are in their areas, if the wells have a history of contamination and where future wells might be going.
FracTracker was conceived at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Environment and Healthy Communities with support from several foundations, including the Heinz Endowments and the William Penn Foundation, which were becoming increasingly concerned about natural gas drilling.
"As a university, you can't really help people without data, and you really couldn't find any information back then," said Samantha Malone, FracTracker's communications manager. "We were pretty much starting off at square one because there was no research or data."
Community groups worried as people suddenly fell ill with digestive ailments, but gas company representatives said there was no proof the illnesses came from drilling. Universities attempted to quantify the gas boom and its affects, but drillers and rival academics quickly dismissed each others' numbers.
Cornell University's researchers seemed to sympathize with those who wished to restrict or prevent drilling, in keeping with New York's fracking ban. Penn State University, on the other hand, accepted millions of dollars from the gas industry and sometimes offered bullish predictions on the state's ability to produce enough natural gas to power the nation, with minimal risks.
Even when universities, such as Duke University, which seemed far enough away to be neutral, weighed in, the industry dismissed their findings if they were critical of the gas industry or its projections.
FracTracker sought to provide context to the myriad reports on drilling. It also put pressure on the state to release more information on where the wells were, which ones were problematic and which companies had been fined.
Today, those interested in drilling's affects can log on to the website to find all of the available data sets on drilling in the Marcellus. Those sets include permits issued, wells abandoned and violations and fines levied.
Every so often, Malone and data manager Matt Kelso introduce a new study or dataset with an insightful article, putting the information into context.
Recently, FracTracker broke off from the University of Pittsburgh and became its own nonprofit, formally known as the FracTracker Alliance. The executive director is Brook Lenker, a veteran of various Chesapeake Bay groups and the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Malone and Kelso will work out of Pittsburgh; Lenker is based in Camp Hill, and the organization has a consultant in Ithaca, NY. FracTracker recently received funding to open an office in Northeast Ohio and is considering expanding as drilling moves into other shale basins.
"There was a lot of passion by some of the people involved with FracTracker work, and that elevated the fact that FracTracker needed to be independent," Lenker said. "There's a natural handicap being associated with one university when you're trying to work with other universities."
Lenker calls fracking "a huge environmental justice issue" that expands beyond water contamination. Rents in drilling communities have skyrocketed. Sometimes, residents sign leases with the gas company without realizing all of the rights they are relinquishing, and often for less money than neighbors in wealthier areas will receive.
Lenker is also trying to quantify drilling's affect on Pennsylvania's trails, such as which habitats have been harmed and if compressors are running all night nearby. He's also trying to make the data a bit more accessible and easier to find.
Lenker said FracTracker presents an opportunity to educate people on gas drilling, which has divided the public as few issues have.
"We're doing this work in service of the public. If there's a need for concern on the things we're seeing, we'll say it. What we don't do is take positions," he said. "But we do realize this activity is so significant, and on such a scale, that we want the info we provide to be used for good decision making."
PA court strikes portion of law limiting zoning restrictions on drilling
Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in July struck down provisions of a Marcellus Shale drilling law enacted in February that restricted the ability of local governments to apply local zoning to drilling operations, and which allowed the Department of Environmental Protection to issue waivers to setback requirements near waterways.
The decision was hailed by environmental groups. "Responsible development of natural gas is important to the people and economy of Pennsylvania, but of equal importance are appropriate community, health and environmental protections," the Pennsylvania Environmental Council said in a statement. "The Court's decision ensures that Pennsylvania's Oil & Gas Act better meets those goals."
But industry representatives said the decision would reduce regulatory predictability for drillers, and Gov. Tom Corbett announced his administration would appeal the ruling. "This decision endangers the jobs of tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians and deprives citizens of their property rights," he said.