Number-Crunching the Footprint of a Gas Fracking Boom, Forest by Forest

Pennslyvania has a total of 4.5 million acres of public lands. Estimates show that as few as 500,000 of these are permanently protected from gas drilling

Tower for horizontal drilling
Tower for drilling horizontally into the Marcellus Shale Formation for natural gas, Lycoming County, Pa./Credit: Ruhrfisch

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Editor’s Note: Some laud natural gas as cleaner burning, home-grown energy — a “bridge” fuel to a renewable future. But others fear the environmental costs of the industry’s newest extraction technique — a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or fracking — are too high. SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Northeastern Pennsylvania in late March to find out how this quest for energy is affecting the landscape and the people who call it home. This is the third in a multi-part series. (Read parts one and two.)

MONTROSE, Pa.—Pennsylvanians know the promise of natural gas means it’s too late to stuff the hydraulic fracturing genie back into the bottle.

But the exponential growth of drilling permits to extract the “fossil fuel of the future” from the dark depths of the Marcellus Shale understandably has them fretting about how this relatively new technology could jeopardize their beloved state parks, forests and game lands.

Why? They’ve studied the maps, figured the math and read the rules. When they added up state and federal holdings in the 28-million acre Keystone State, they discovered it has a total of 4.5 million acres of public lands. However, the Nature Conservancy estimates that as few as 500,000 of those publicly accessible acres are permanently protected from natural gas drilling.

Some environmental organizations are calling for residents to have a voice via a ballot referendum on whether hydraulic fracturing should be allowed on state forests, parks or game lands. But that vote likely won’t come to fruition.

Fracking is already part of the landscape on the state’s network of forests. And, companies and government officials are in the midst of exploring their options at iconic landmarks such as Ohiopyle State Park on the Youghiogheny River.

The Nature Conservancy predicts that somewhere between 900 and 2,200 well pads could sprout up on all state lands by the year 2030 — but others contend that number is way too low.

First, a look at the state forests. About 1.5 million acres of the 2.2 million acres in the system are situated atop the Marcellus Shale. Nearly 700,000 acres of state forests have already been leased and about 300,000 acres are legally off limits to future leases because Pennsylvania owns the mineral rights affiliated with the latter.

As of early March, 575 well locations have been approved on forest lands. Of those, 482 are permitted and 164 are drilled, according to state figures.

“It’s difficult to say with any level of confidence what the number could be over the next few decades but I think it’s fair to say somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 wells,” John Quigley, a former state environmental leader, told SolveClimate News in an interview. “Of course that number could change depending on the price of gas.”

Quigley served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources from April 2009 until January when a new Republican administration took office. He is now an adviser to a former employer, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future. Known as PennFuture, it’s a statewide public interest organization based in Harrisburg.

All of those wells, Quigley fears, could compromise the bulk of state forests that became the first in the nation to be certified as sustainably managed under standards laid out by the Forest Stewardship Council. Trying to balance gas drilling in forests classified as “green” could jeopardize 90,000 jobs in the state connected to the forest products industry, a full 10 percent of the Pennsylvania’s manufacturing workforce.

Exploratory Stage at State Parks

Of the 117 state parks in Pennsylvania, 61 are situated above the Marcellus Shale formation. The state owns mineral rights on just 20 percent of its total parkland, meaning the bulk of the system’s 283,000 acres is open to some sort of extractive process.

“Theoretically, all 61 of those parks are at risk,” Quigley said. “Right now, I know at least half a dozen parks are being intensely studied by the industry.”

Just one rung down from agriculture, tourism is Pennsylvania’s second highest employer and adds $3 billion annually to state coffers. State calculations indicate that between 15 and 20 percent of that is connected with outdoor recreation and heritage sites. Plus, a Penn State study revealed that every dollar the state invested in its state parks yielded a $10 return to local economies. Fruits of that investment, the study said, generated $818 million in local sales and more than 10,500 local jobs.

Quigley fears on-site drilling in state parks could not only damage natural resources but also harm an award-winning agency that attracted 38 million visitors in 2010. The Bureau of State Parks is part of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

In 2009, the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration awarded Pennsylvania’s park system the two-year top honor of a National Gold Medal Award for planning and management excellence.

Quigley is especially mortified at the thought of visitors witnessing natural gas drilling operations on any of the 20,500 acres of Ohiopyle State Park, which is south of Pittsburgh and close to the Maryland and West Virginia state borders. The Youghiogheny River is a draw for whitewater junkies seeking a fix. Ohiopyle, the southern gateway to the recreation-saturated Laurel Highlands, is also a magnet for hikers, campers and bicyclists exploring the Great Allegheny Passage Trail.

After bubbling over about the merits of Ohiopyle, Quigley mentioned Maurice Goddard, the Massachusetts-born forester who not only headed up the Pennsylvania State University Forestry School but also became the patriarch of Pennsylvania parks and forests during the mid-20th century.

“To see drilling in parks would be an incredibly jarring experience,” Quigley said. “The irony there is so thick you can cut it with a knife.”

Forest Preservation Pivotal

The Pennsylvania chapter of The Nature Conservancy presents its concerns about the effects of hydraulic fracturing in a November 2010 report titled “Pennsylvania Energy Impacts Assessment.”

This study uses detailed aerial photo analysis to track the actual footprint of wells and their surrounding infrastructure on landscapes above the Marcellus Shale. But the researchers emphasize that the impact doesn’t stop there.

Environmentalists would prefer that as much drilling development as possible occurs on agricultural fields that support crops instead of trees. With forests, they say, it’s a different scenario.

Nels Johnson, director of conservation programs for the conservancy’s Pennsylvania chapter, is the report’s lead author. He collaborated with state authorities and gas companies to compile the research.

“It’s a major conversion of land use,” Johnson told SolveClimate News. “If the land is steep and heavily forested our concern is greater than if the land is flatter and already cleared.

“One acre of forest that goes to non-forest releases 10 times more sediments and nutrients because the trees aren’t there to keep them in place,” he continued. “When that runs into waterways, that’s a whole new set of stresses on aquatic life.”

Clearing of 90,000 acres by 2030 for new Marcellus gas development will also put an additional 220,000 forest acres adjacent to the development in jeopardy. Why? These openings create new forest edges. Threats such as the expanded presence of invasive species that displace natives and a higher risk of predation could affect sensitive wildlife and plant species.

For instance, breeding habitat for the black-throated blue warbler could shrink severely. And tree frogs, flying squirrels and some woodland flowers might not survive because of changes in canopy cover, light and humidity levels.

Forest fragmentation will be concentrated in the north central and southwest parts of the state where many of the largest and most intact forests remain, Johnson noted.

“We’ve recovered forests tremendously since the peak of logging and clearing but still, large patches of forest are increasingly rare,” he said. “We can reduce forest fragmentation from this new wave of natural gas development if we think about it now. That means designing pads so they can go at the edge of a forest instead of in the middle of it.”

What About Waterways?

“Hunting and fishing define the state because they’re such an integral part of the culture,” Quigley said about what expansive gas drilling means in a place where outdoors culture is so pronounced that opening day of deer hunting season has practically achieved holiday status.

“Woodcock hunters were thrilled about so much edge habitat being introduced. I’m not so sure the deer and bear hunters … or the backpackers and horseback riders were as thrilled.”

Sediments and nutrients are a gigantic threat to the once-widespread populations of native Eastern brook trout that are now confined to small watersheds in mountainous regions. For instance, trout strongholds are concentrated in north central Pennsylvania, where Marcellus development is expected to affect more than half of those watersheds.

Nearly 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s 329 globally rare and threatened plant and animal species can be found in areas with high potential for Marcellus gas development according to conservancy researchers. These species tend to be associated with rivers areas, streams, and wetlands, while others are concentrated in unusually diverse areas such as the Youghiogheny River Gorge in the state’s southwestern section.

For example, the report stated, three-quarters of the state’s snow trillium, a flowering plant, are in high potential Marcellus development areas, as are all known populations of the green salamander.

Finding a Way Forward

“This is nothing new,” Quigley said about the arrival of hydraulic fracturing in a state accustomed to feeding the country’s voracious energy needs. “What’s new is the scale of this. Pennsylvania wasn’t prepared for this. It’s several levels of magnitude bigger than anything Pennsylvania has ever done before.”

Quigley praises the state administration that left office in January for “heroic efforts” to craft a body of regulations and hire an environmental staff with know-how.

“They started down the right path to regulate this industry fully,” he said, referring to former governor, Democrat Ed Rendell, and John Hanger, his former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “That put Pennsylvania on the right regulatory trajectory.”

Now he’s nervous that such progress is coming to a “dead halt” under new Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and a GOP-majority Pennsylvania Legislature. Still, he emphasized, there’s an opportunity for a win-win if regulators and industry can find balance going forward.

Johnson, of The Nature Conservancy, is hopeful that all players involved in the hydraulic fracturing conversation will seriously consider the long-term footprint of such an intrusive infrastructure.

“Pennsylvania has enough gas to go decades and decades beyond the next 20 years,” he said. “The decision about where the infrastructure goes has an impact and we’re going to fragment things to pieces if we don’t put in the infrastructure correctly.

“If we don’t do it right, the forest will still be there but it will have lost its ability to sustain a range of species.”

Decision-makers owe it to not only current and future residents to tread carefully, Johnson noted, but also to the legacy of Maurice Goddard, Gifford Pinchot and Rachel Carson. Pennsylvania was the native or adopted home for all three of these eco-visionaries.

Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, was a two-term governor of the Keystone State. His family home in northeastern Pennsylvania, Grey Towers, became the Yale School of Forestry’s summer camp and the state named a 2,338-acre park near Harrisburg after him. 

After writing the seminal “Silent Spring” in 1962, the ecologist and author Carson was credited with spurring the modern environmental movement.

Just after the names of the treasured triumvirate tumbled from his mouth, Johnson posed his own query.

“What would our pioneering conservationists think about what we’re doing with energy development?” he asked. Several moments of silence passed before he answered his own question. “I don’t think they’d be very proud of us.”