Public Lab Wiki documentation

Oil and Gas Water Quality

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(lead image:Stuart Logan / Oil Industry support vessel & rig. / CC BY-SA 2.0)


The impacts of the oil and gas industry on water quality can be hard to understand and determine. Some methods in exploring aspects of this, such as the "stick" method for testing sheens are simpler, other methods require the use of sensors to determine changes in water quality, especially within the water column. The activities of the oil and gas industry threatens many of our important drinking water sources and our waterways. It is important to understand the effects this industry has on our communities and how we might monitor for their negative impacts. This wiki page will explore methods people can use for testing water in relation to these concerns.


Chalmette, Louisiana by @rollinrenola: "Chalmette Refining was built in 1915 it is one of a few refineries built just upstream from New Orleans lower 9th ward. PBF Energy which is based in New Jersey currently owns the 189,000 barrel day facility, which also houses pipelines and other assets on that site. Over the years the company has committed to continued safety and environmentally responsible operations but some residence within only a few miles of the site have been feeling that standards of state and local governments can not be trusted," and that the water they drink is affected by the industry. Some community members believe "not enough as been done and community issues are many times overlooked." In terms of the government "it seems like most of the effort is centered around increasing production and not around lessoning the environmental impact."

Read more about the community surveys and response here.


Water Quality Parameters

There are several water quality parameters that could be affected with the presence of oil and gas in the water. These include:

  • Turbidity: Turbidity is a water quality parameter that indicates how transparent water is. The less transparent water is, the more turbid it is - or the more "stuff" it has in it. Causes of turbid water can include runoff from the land that that carries sediments, discharge from pollution sources, phytoplankton, and algae. Turbidity is measured by units called " Nephelometric Turbidity Units" or NTUs. You can measure turbidity with an instrument called a nephelometer or turbidimeter, or you can use a device called a secchi disk to measure NTUs in standing water. Turbidity can be affected by oil presence the water as it sit on top of the water column and affects visibility, or suspends within the column itself.


  • Conductivity: "measure[s] of the capability of a solution such as water in a stream to pass an electric current. This is an indicator of the concentration of dissolved electrolyte ions in the water. It doesn't identify the specific ions in the water. However, significant increases in conductivity may be an indicator that polluting discharges have entered the water...The basic unit of measurement for conductivity is micromhos per centimeter (µmhos/cm) or microsiemens per centimeter (µS/cm)." ( Conductivity is often measured with a probe or a meter which can test the electrical capacity of water by measuring the voltage that passes between two electrodes. Oil, gas, and byproducts of the industry such as lubricants, heavy metals, and salts can cause an increase in the conductivity in contaminated water.

  • pH: "Level of pH can indicate chemical changes in water, and the biological availability of nutrients in water. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. A safe level of pH of water ranges between 6.5 and 8.5 units. pH levels higher than 8.5 become highly basic, while pH levels below 6.5 become highly acidic for water quality." ( "The most common method for measuring pH is with a meter, which involves a pH-sensitive electrode and a reference electrode. Acid-base indicators change color in response to different pH values. Litmus paper and pH paper are used for quick, relatively imprecise measurements. These are strips of paper that have been treated with an indicator. A colorimeter may be used to measure the pH of a sample. A vial is filled with a specimen and a reagent is added to produce a pH-dependent color change. The color is compared against a chart or standard to determine the pH value." ( Contamination of oil and gas often changes the pH of water.


(Edward Stevens, 29 March 2010)

  • TDS (Total Dissolved Solids): Total Dissolved Solids "refer[s] to any minerals, salts, metals, cations or anions dissolved in water" ( TDS can relate to the conductivity and the turbidity of the water, but is often harder to determine as a water quality parameter. TDS is measured as a volume of water with the unit milligrams per liter (mg/L), or parts per million (ppm). Oil and gas contamination can often cause high levels of TDS.

  • Temperature: temperature is also a water quality parameter that can change with the presence of contamination. Thought it should be noted, that temperature can also be affected by many other factors.

Water Quality Sensors

One of the tools for collecting measurements of these water quality parameters is through digital/electronic sensors. These sensors come in roughly three categories:

  • Expensive, lab-grade sensors: these sensors cost hundreds or thousands of dollars and have clear procedures in place for collecting and calibrating data as well as a high degree of accuracy.
  • Cheap, consumer sensors: these sensors cost tens of dollars, and are primarily used by people wanting to measure their swimming pools and aquariums. These consumer sensors seem to be limited to temperature, pH, conductivity, and TDS and generally don't have clear, documented procedures for testing and calibration.
  • DIY electronics sensors: these sensors are not self-contained and require additional hardware and programming to use, usually something like an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi.

We have documented the use of a set of liquid sensors from DF Robot with our Simple Water Sensor Platform. This platform is a work-in-progress and is an attempt to design an easy-to-use system for taking water quality measurements from a wide variety of low-cost water-quality sensors.


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Title Author Updated Likes Comments
How can you tell if a sheen on water is bacterial or petroleum (oil)? @stevie 7 months ago 2
Why do individuals/organizations want to collect water quality data? @wmacfarl 7 months ago 3
What water quality data can we collect to investigate oil/gas pollution? @wmacfarl 7 months ago 2
How can I calibrate a turbidity sensor? @wmacfarl 7 months ago 4
Reused fracking water? @charlotte_clarke 9 months ago 2
How can we relate water quality sensor measurements to oil/gas pollution? @wmacfarl 11 months ago 2
How to test water for heavy metals today? @Devon7 over 2 years ago 4
How do I identify an oil sheen or spill or slick in aerial photography? @warren almost 3 years ago 1
How much do different oil pollution tests cost? @warren almost 3 years ago 1
What does oil pollution mean for my health? @warren almost 3 years ago 1

Ask a question  or help answer future questions on this topic

Further Resources:


  • Access to local waterways and logistics to doing that work,
  • We found no clear standards for doing this testing federally,

Next steps for work and further exploration:

  • Continue to test, prototype, and document the Simple Water Sensor. See the Simple Water Sensor Platform wiki page for more details.
  • Research and document ways of knowing where, when, and how to collect water samples and water data that is relevant to oil and gas contamination.
  • Field test the new kits -Relationships between common water quality metrics and oil and gas contamination is still a little ambiguous and more work in this area could be helpful
  • Correlating sensing with other data such as skytruth alerts
  • Identify avenues people have for reporting suspected spills
  • Collect stories of people's experiences with oil and gas pollution, water monitoring, data collection, organizing, advocacy,
  • How do these methods relate to other sensing such as visual/odor monitoring?
  • Are there other ways to measure a sheen from a sensor? None of the sensors we’ve seen try to do this.
  • Research techniques for analyzing sheens from photography, aerial photography, satellite images, etc.
  • Look at Google Earth Engine as a possible tool for investigating sheens.