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Using Remote Sensing to Estimate Exposures to Flaring from Unconventional Oil and Gas Operations
  • Meredith Franklin
Meredith Franklin
University of Southern California

Corresponding Author:meredith.franklin@usc.edu

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Unconventional extraction technologies including directional well drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing have led to a surge in domestic oil and gas production in the US over the past decade. Flaring, or the combustion of petroleum products into the open atmosphere, is a common practice associated with oil and gas development. Flaring is potentially a major source of hazardous air pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, toxic heavy metals, and black carbon. Quantifying exposures from flaring is challenging due to the sheer number of drilling sites, irregularity in production, and a lack of regulatory requirements to report flaring activities by the industry. The few datasets reporting oil and gas production are proprietary and do not contain sufficient information to reliably quantify emissions from flaring needed for public health studies. Furthermore, oil and gas operations typically occur in rural regions that are not covered by routine air quality monitoring. Remote sensing provides a unique means of monitoring flaring activities, as multi-spectral satellite instruments collecting data at night are able to detect thermal anomalies. Recent advances to algorithms have resulted in two global, open source products that provide data on heat sources related to flaring: the MODIS fire detection product and the VIIRS Nightfire product. We show that VIIRS Nightfire uniquely provides sub-grid scale (< 750m) identification of flaring sources in the Eagle Ford Shale region of Texas, one of the largest and most active drilling areas in the US. VIIRS Nightfire provides flaring source temperature, area, and radiant heat intensity, along with estimates of methane and carbon dioxide. Using spatiotemporal hierarchical clustering we pinpointed sources of flaring, and by empirically fusing VIIRS radiant heat and source area with oil and gas well permit data, we estimated flared gas volume. These estimates provide a new and novel means of quantifying exposure for the many residents of the region who have been impacted by the surge in oil and gas extraction. While we show an application of these exposures to examine the association of flaring with adverse birth outcomes in Eagle Ford, our data and methods are easily generalizable, having wide-reaching policy and public health applicability.