A Guide to Every Permitted Natural Gas Well in West Virginia

Category: Best visualization (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: ProPublica, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 3 Jun 2019

Credit: Al Shaw and Kate Mishkin

Project description:

Well pads are large gravel clearings where horizontal natural gas wells are drilled into the earth. In West Virginia, this often involves flattening hilltops, denuding forests and paving new roads. There can be multiple wells on a pad. Some have over a dozen. ProPublica obtained images of every permitted horizontal well pad in the state using data from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and aerial imagery from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Impact reached:

This was part of a larger project called Powerless that published both in 2018 and 2019; the impact was to show the citizens of West Virginia the extent and contours of natural gas development in their state — which is quite intrusive. One of the people we profiled in that series were plaintiffs in a case against a natural gas company, and afterward the court ruled that the company was in fact trespassing on their land.

Techniques/technologies used:

First, we grabbed all of the wells from the Department of the Environmental Protection, and used a clustering algorithm to locate the well pads. We then collected aerial images taken by the USDA’s National Agriculture Imagery Program within a 250-meter radius of the center of those clusters. We fed that to Google Earth Engine to process the imagery, and then used built those into a front-end to let people explore them. We used d3 to create a locator map that shows you where you are in the scroll, and general javascript to power the site.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Identifying the clusters of natural gas permits that make up well pads and turning that data into 1,400 pieces of high-resolution aerial imagery was a complex task involving new and innovative data processing pipelines, which I had never attempted before. By using this technique we were the first to show the extent of the environmental devastation wrought by natural gas development in West Virginia.

What can others learn from this project?

Using computer programming to show the totality of an instance of harm can be a powerful rhetorical tool for influencing public opinion and policy decisions on a topic. Sometimes you don’t know the full scale of a problem until you have collected and shown an image of every single instance of it together.

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