Jerry Skinner stands in his garden, looking into the distance at the edge of a forested mountain. Amid the lush shades of green, a muddy brown strip of earth stands out. It's the telltale sign of a buried pipeline.
"The pipelines are all around this property," Skinner said. "When I came here, the county had an allure that it doesn't have anymore. I'm not sure I want to live here anymore."
Skinner is the resident naturalist at the Woodbourne Forest and Wildlife Preserve, a 650-acre forestland that runs through parts of northeastern Pennsylvania that are experiencing intensive gas drilling because of a hotly contested method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Around his house, in the town of Dimock, gas wells have sprung up and a vast network of interconnected pipelines transports the gas underground. Skinner worries that as drilling activity heads deeper into forests and pipelines chop up large blocks of land, rare species native to Pennsylvania will be driven out.
In recent years, Pennsylvania has become ground zero for fracking, along with neighboring states that sit atop a large shale reserve known as the Marcellus Formation. Pennsylvania has more than 6,000 active gas wells, and Marcellus-related production has soared to 12 billion cubic feet per day, six times the production rate in 2009.
Gas drilling has long raised concerns about water contamination and air pollution. But until recently, little public attention has been paid to the pipelines that must be built to carry the gas. In Pennsylvania, concerns about these pipelines are growing because many of them are being built in the state's 16 million acres of forest, which include some of the largest contiguous blocks of forestland east of the Mississippi River. Of the 2.2 million acres the state oversees, nearly 700,000 acres already have been leased for drilling, allowing companies to cut paths through pristine stretches of trees, fragment forests, decrease biodiversity and introduce invasive species.
"In Pennsylvania, the gas companies are working in essentially the most ecologically sensitive area of the commonwealth," said John Quigley, who served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for two years under former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. "The scale of this thing is off the charts. It's unprecedented."
Of particular concern are gathering lines, the pipes that carry gas from wells to long-distance transmission lines. Although they are often the same size as transmission lines and operate at the same pressure levels, about 90 percent of the nation's gathering lines aren't regulated by state or federal authorities.
In fact, regulators don't even know where many gathering lines are located, even though they sometimes run close to homes and businesses.
Gathering lines are likely to generate even more controversy in the years ahead. The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, an industry group, estimated two years ago that more than 400,000 new miles of gathering lines will be installed by 2035.
Concerns about forest fragmentation due to industrial activity are not unique to Pennsylvania. In Alberta, Canada, for instance, recent oil and gas projects have reduced core forest area, including habitats for Woodland Caribou. As pipelines, roads and well pads slash across forests in Alberta, the Woodland Caribou, which tends to avoid forest edges, has been driven close to extinction.
Biologists and other forestry experts said curtailing or reversing the trend in Pennsylvania would be difficult because Pennsylvania's land management system is so fragmented. The state does not own the mineral rights for about 15 percent of the forest it oversees, leaving those areas open to drilling.
The Nature Conservancy released a report three years ago projecting that under a medium-growth scenario, a minimum of 6,000 well pads with 60,000 wells will be drilled in Pennsylvania by 2030—and that two-thirds of them will be in forest areas.
In 2011, in testimony before the Maryland House Environmental Committee as an independent environmental consultant, Quigley warned that the cumulative effect of gas drilling "will dwarf all of Pennsylvania's previous waves of resource extraction combined," and that Maryland must avoid the mistakes that Pennsylvania has made.
Industry Dismisses Fears
On average, each well pad requires 8.8 acres to be cleared, according to The Nature Conservancy. About three of these acres are for the well pad itself, while the rest are needed for infrastructure such as roads, pipelines and water impoundments.