Gas Pipeline Boom Fragmenting Pennsylvania’s Forests

Many of the pipelines to serve fracking are being built deep in the state's 16 million acres of forest. 'The scale of this thing is off the charts.'

Pipeline corridor runs through farm and forestland in Pennsylvania. Credit: Naveena Sadasivam

Share this article

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.

(SLIDESHOW: The Pipeline Invasion Into Pennsylvania’s Forests—in Photographs and Text)

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.

(MORE: Boom in Unregulated Natural Gas Pipelines Posing New Risks)

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.

In total, the conservancy estimated that 61,000 forest acres in Pennsylvania will be cleared by 2030. The group believes this deforestation will affect an additional 91,000 to 220,000 acres of interior forestland near the developed areas.

The gas industry disagrees with conservationists about the impact of pipeline corridors on wildlife habitats. Right-of-ways with “widths typical of single natural gas pipeline facilities are not likely to present major problems,” said Catherine Landry, communications director for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.

John Stoody, director of governmental and public relations for the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, said: “Wildlife is invited to cross our rights-of-way happily and safely anytime they like.”

He also pointed out the tradeoff in using pipelines: When compared to trains and trucks, Stoody said, pipelines are a safer means of transportation with lower greenhouse-gas emissions.

The American Gas Association similarly denied that pipeline corridors cause forest fragmentation. A spokeswoman for the organization said they “can actually enhance habitat by serving to connect fragmented forest, allowing pathways for wildlife and creating forest edge meadowlands.” She cited alternate detrimental factors, contending that roadways, urbanization, agriculture and other human activities are the more likely culprits.

For decades now, ecologists and conservationists have been studying how human activities have disrupted forest ecosystems, including how far the impact extends from the actual site of a pipeline right-of-way. They have confirmed that the reverberations go deep into woodlands.

Recently, for example, researchers in Wyoming concluded that energy development in the state was leading to excessive habitat alteration and accelerating the decline of songbirds.

Scientists abroad have also examined the relationship between forest fragmentation and habitat loss.

Researchers in Australia analyzed several forest areas in India, South America and Indonesia and found that linear clearings like those linked to road and pipeline construction block the movement of some native animals and serve as pathways for invasive species.

“Pipelines are going in and dissecting forest habitats and creating corridors within (them),” said Margaret Brittingham, an ecologist at Penn State University who has been studying the impact of gas drilling on forest habitats, concentrating on songbirds in Pennsylvania.

She and others have discovered that right-of-ways enable larger animals to move into parts of the interior forest they had not explored. As a result, interior species become exposed to new predators.

Brittingham and her colleagues predict that as more forest territory is chopped up into smaller pieces, habitat for specialists—species that require a specific set of conditions for survival—will decrease, which may in turn lead to their extinction. Those include the scarlet tanager, the blue-headed vireo and the hooded warbler.

In contrast, animals that tend to do well around people will likely increase in number. Raccoons, deer, crows and blue jays are among them.

“It’s a shift in the competitive advantages that you give species,” Brittingham said. “It’s biotic homogenization.”

Fighting for Rights

In their fight to preserve forests and biodiversity, conservationists and other wildlife advocates in Pennsylvania have confronted another adversary – the state’s property-rights system. 

In Pennsylvania, surface and mineral rights are sold separately. That means while the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources oversees 2.2 million acres of forest, it owns only about 85 percent of the mineral rights in that area. The remaining 15 percent is still controlled by people who once owned parcels of the land—even though they have sold their parcels to the state. Those people can negotiate individual contracts for mineral-exploration leases, including fracking. 

In a study of land-usage patterns in Pennsylvania’s interior forests, Brittingham and her colleagues found that development is greater on properties with private ownership of mineral rights. They said the split in private and public management of land will complicate the preservation efforts by agencies and nonprofit groups.

A major test case involves the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania.

In 1923, the federal government purchased that forest, piece by piece, but landowners were given the option to sell surface rights or both surface and mineral rights. As a result, 93 percent of the mineral rights in the 510,000-acre forest are now held by a vast number of private owners.

Citing this surface-mineral rights bifurcation, the gas industry argues that the U.S. Forest Service cannot regulate drilling in the Allegheny because it does not own most of the mineral rights there. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Allegheny Defense Project insist the Forest Service has such authority as part of its overall mission to protect the forest.

In October, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the gas industry. 

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has logged a mixed record in its forestry-management efforts.

In 2010, the agency released a 48-page presentation on the state’s forestland, mapping ecologically sensitive regions, areas with gas leases and forest patches that had been severely fragmented. The department concluded that it could not lease out any more land for gas drilling without causing significant damage to forest habitats.

A few months before the study was released, the state issued two gas-drilling leases totaling more than 64,000 forest acres. The sale brought in $250 million and has led to approval for construction of 438 shale gas well pads.

After those leases were issued, the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell imposed a moratorium on the leasing of forestland. That measure remains in effect.

However, the current version of the 2010 presentation, which has been revised under the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who strongly supports the drilling industry, is only 12 pages long and no longer contains the strongly worded conclusion that any further leasing would be severely detrimental to forest ecosystems.

“Since the 2010 analysis, many things have changed—including our understanding of the development patterns and impacts, and technology related to horizontal drilling,” said Christina Novak, press secretary for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Novak also said the agency continues to maintain that the regions referenced in the 2010 presentation “are important areas to protect and consider if additional drilling is contemplated.”

Corbett once declared that he wanted to “make Pennsylvania the Texas of the natural gas boom.”

A month after taking office in 2011, he repealed a policy meant to minimize environmental damage to state parks. The architect of that repeal, Corbett’s former environmental protection commissioner, Michael Krancer, now works at a law firm with clients in the gas industry.

Last year, Corbett signed Act 13, which requires oil and gas companies to pay an impact fee for their projects. In 2012, the state distributed 60 percent of the more than $200 million it collected through that law to counties and municipalities. The money was spent on reducing taxes and repairing roads and stormwater drains.

The remaining 40 percent of the impact fee was divided among various state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Protection, Public Utility Commission and Marcellus Legacy Fund, which distributed funds for environmental and infrastructure projects.

Act 13 also requires the state to study the placement of natural gas gathering lines and investigate their environmental impact. The study, conducted last year, recommended that pipeline operators consult with experts to restore vegetation in right-of-ways and identify better ways to assess the environmental footprint of their activities.

The Business Case

Since activists and state regulators have little legal leverage over where gas wells are dug and pipelines laid in Pennsylvania, some environmental groups are looking for other strategies.

Working with the University of Tennessee, the Nature Conservancy has produced Development by Design, a software tool that allows pipeline companies to find routes that minimize ecological damage while also being cost-effective.

“Making the business case for these kinds of sustainability issues is absolutely key,” said Quigley, the former Pennsylvania environmental commissioner.

The conservancy is testing a beta version with four companies. Currently the software can analyze habitat fragmentation, provide information to minimize sediment loss and help evaluate the effect of pipeline crossings on rivers.

“Some companies seem to be very interested, others less so,” said Nels Johnson, the conservancy’s deputy state director for Pennsylvania. “The real question is whether [the companies will] use it in a way that fundamentally changes the way they do planning.”

For residents of Pennsylvania, the software will likely come too late.

One of those residents, Emily Krafjack, is president of the grassroots group Connection for Oil, Gas & Environment in the Northern Tier. Since 2010, she has been providing property owners with information about pipelines in an effort to balance gas-industry exploration with safeguarding landowners’ rights, the environment and the region’s traditional way of life.

She said the rampant development—the rumbling of construction trucks, the ever-greater intrusion into forests—has caused Pennsylvania to lose its charm.

On a recent drive around some of the forestlands, Krafjack pointed to the pipeline right-of-ways that periodically sliced through the forest. She said she sometimes struggles to recognize her hometown. “I’m over 50 now,” Krafjack said, “and I just can’t catch my breath.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the number of acres of forestland that the state of Pennsylvania oversees.