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New report details how natural gas extraction is destroying forests in Pennsylvania - photo says it all

Amy Mall

Posted October 12, 2012 in Health and the Environment, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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A new analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) of two counties in Pennsylvania found that natural gas extraction creates "potentially serious patterns of disturbance on the landscape." Wellpads, roads, pipelines and waste pits are clearcuts in forests. Cumulatively they are very destructive to the natural ecosystem.

According to the USGS: "Changes in land use and land cover affect the ability of ecosystems to provide essential ecological goods and services, which, in turn, affect the economic, public health, and social benefits that these ecosystems provide." Habitat fragmentation decreases a forest's "abilty to support viable populations of individual species."

The bottom line for the USGS: "Agricultural and forested areas are being converted to natural gas extraction disturbance" and the effect is "substantial." You can find all the data and analysis in the USGS paper on line, but to see what the data mean in real life, this photo of a forested landscape in McKean County, Pennsylvania is worth a thousand words:

Thumbnail image for New Picture.bmp 

Photo source: Landscape consequences of natural gas extraction in Bradford and Washington Counties, Pennsylvania, 2004–2010: U.S. Geological Survey

Sadly, Pennsylvania is not the only place where wildlife habitat is being destroyed by oil and gas production. Here is another example, from Wyoming:

wyoming-jonah-oil-and-gas.jpg

Courtesy: EcoFlight

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Comments

AnonymousOct 12 2012 11:08 PM

This photo, like most anti-fracking content from NRDC, is horrifically misleading. The picture shows shallow oil wells in McKean county that are drilled at 250' (5 acre) spacing. One Marcellus pad would replace 128 of those wells. That is in no way indicative of the vast amount of drilling going on in Pennsylvania.

Amy MallOct 12 2012 11:30 PM

Anonymous: The USGS compiled a lot of very interesting data. The study found that the major contributor to forest loss in the two counties examined was pipeline construction. It cites a recent analysis of Marcellus well permit locations in Pennsylvania that found that well pads and associated infrastructure (roads, water impoundments, and pipelines) required nearly 9 acres per well pad, plus an additional 21 acres of indirect edge effects for a total of 30 acres of land disturbance per well pad. The authors write that, while the disturbance of shale and non-shale wells is different, "the combined effect of both activities is substantial."

Environmental EngineerOct 13 2012 10:28 AM

One of the great benefits of the recent natural gas technology is the conversion of coal-burning electrical generation to much cleaner natural gas. Compare the photos you provided to mountain top coal mining areas, and make a choice. And with respect to pipelines, I've helped build more than 1,000 miles of them (water and petroleum) and they do temporary damage to an area along the route. But that area becomes a green belt in a few years. The pipeline owner provides erosion control (usually through vegetation) to prevent the pipeline from being washed out.

Marlene LarkinsOct 13 2012 11:52 AM

I get so saddened by this. What will happen to our selves and our children? Romney wants to turn gov't over to these companies as they are funding his campaign. OBama has heard us before and let's keep writing the letters to get laws changed to protect us.

Amy MallOct 13 2012 12:22 PM

Environmental Engineer: Mountaintop removal coal mining is surely a sin against the earth and nearby communities. But it is not the only alternative to natural gas development. When making energy choices, the overall and cumulative impacts of natural gas development should be compared to energy efficiency measures and renewable energy sources (which of course have their own impacts that must be minimized). And where natural gas development is allowed, the strictest environmental safeguards should be in place.

Regarding pipelines specifically, the USGS report cites research which found that the type of extensive and long-term habitat conversion from natural gas development results in a "low probability that the disturbed land will revert back to a natural state in the near future." Pipeline right-of-ways are generally kept cleared and can have the same impact on an ecosystem as a road. Although it looks green, a pipeline corridor is not the same as a natural forest.

Environmental EngineerOct 13 2012 01:46 PM

Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good. If we are going to accommodate 9 billion people on the planet, we need to look at what is possible, not at what would be nice. As far as alternative energy sources go, I've worked on everything from waste biomass to energy projects, biodiesel, photovoltaics, energy crops, efficiency improvements and others. None of them (nor all of them collectively) can provide anything like the quantiy of energy required to permit those 9 billion people to have even a modestly modern lifestyle. And by modestly modern I mean having safe drinking water, proper sanitation, enough to eat, medical care and a stove that doesn't burn dung. Add in a washing machine in a home with an actual floor rather than dirt. Make it possible to send their kids to school rather than use them as forced labor in the fields.

MarilynOct 14 2012 02:21 AM

Are these companies within the law given all the damage they have done. But the damage is extensive. Even the engineer says he had built 1000 miles of pipeline. Can these corporations, some even not American, with their mineral rights purchases, or their grandfathered rights, operate without oversight inspection, or fines. If the river is fouled, the water table is emptied and well water is poisoned, and these chemicals leak into the ground and the town sewers, what new technology do the engineers have to undo the damage? We know the governor of PA allowed this gold rush to occur without any thought or study to the extremely negative impact on most of the residents. Worst of all did property owners sell out of fear, that if they didnt, their neighbors would and their land would be worthless afterwards. It isnt a wonderful life when the big corporation comes to town. I fear owning land in America is now meaningless.

Environmental EngineerOct 14 2012 04:01 AM

As in any line of work, there are good guys and bad guys. Years ago, I was retained by one of the major oil companies to do environmental audits of their bulk distribution facilities nationwide. I spent 18 months walking through their facilities, talking to anybody I wanted, walking into any place I wanted to go to at each facility. After a few weeks of that, I would give a presentation to senior corporate management (Division President and his minions). They were very responsive, and willing to fix things I found that needed fixing. These were environmental risk assessments conducted by independent engineers, not environmental regulation assessments conducted by lawyers. Other organizations are more willing to take risks,especially with other people taking the risk! The challenge of proper regulation is to let the responsible and careful companies do what they need to do, while eliminating the fly-by-night, high risk operators. For example, I believe the proper approach to the BP gulf oil spill would have been to make BP pay for all damages (that part is more-or-less happening, and has cost BP billions of dollars), but also to deny BP (and only BP) the permits to develop their deep off-shore leases. That would force BP to sell those leases to other operators in the gulf because they had no potential value to BP. A clear message would be sent to the other companies, who would very quickly "get religion" and run their operations with a high regard for the risks inherent in the choices they make.

Mary LouiseOct 14 2012 06:11 PM

Comment removed — we welcome all civil conversation, but personal or ad hominem attack on any participant is not okay. – editors

Michael BerndtsonOct 15 2012 12:11 PM

On one hand I agree with Environmental Engineer's no-nonsense commonsense approach to dovetailing energy and the environment. On the other, his/her comments come off as a mash up between environmental consulting firm client management, prospective client sales and industry PR. If I'm not mistaken environmental engineering is essentially a re-branding of sanitation/civil engineering coupled with environmental policy, protection and remediation. But here's the problem as I see it. The environmental business including consulting, engineering and contracting typically works after the fact. After the pipeline bursts. After the groundwater is contaminated. After the offshore well leaks. After the landfill leaches everything and anything into the subsurface. After lead is found in Chinese manufactured toys. After mercury is found in fish. Etc.

What's missing with shale gas exploitation is environmental engineering before the fact. And from what I've been reading the entire effort to promote and produce shale gas excludes environmental concerns - issues that are well understood after 40 years of environmental engineering. So in short, environmental engineer may have a late career boost doing groundwater remediation in States like Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Wyoming, Texas, where shale gas plays bypassed environmental protection concerns via industry and State Government Agency pushes (or putsches).

Nick GrealyOct 15 2012 06:27 PM

Amy that Wyoming picture has been making the rounds since Gasland. That is development of vertical wells in the 90s and is not reflecive of what modern development looks like.
Schlumberger say that European development would have an impact 85% lower than in the US thanks to new technology especially of much longer horizontals.
In the UK we estimate shale resources could be accessed from as little as 100 pads throughout the country, with an ultimate footprint of 200 acres.
Ask yourself : what could a driller possibly gain from drilling more wells than they need to? What possible financial incentive could there be!
Do businesses build bigger factories? What on earth would be the point?

Environmental EngineerOct 15 2012 06:32 PM

We are drifting off thread. My aim in posting was to raise the point that we just can't be against everything. You have to be for some option that has a potential for significant improvement over doing nothing. I've done that for myself, and I believe that natural gas development in the lower 48 states represents a better alternative than any other option that has the real potential to provide the energy we need. If you oppose hydraulic fracking as I have discussed, which includes adequate, but accommodating regulation, what do you propose as the alternative? Let's put that alternative under the same microscope.

Amy MallOct 16 2012 10:51 AM

Nick: The oil and gas industry has many techniques available to it that would reduce its environmental footprint as well as improve economics, yet these techniques are not widely adopted. For example, there is strong evidence that pitless drilling is more economical than using open-air pits, yet pits are still widely used. Similarly, it is well documented that capturing air emissions is profitable, yet companies do not maximize their air pollution controls. Companies violate the law and pay fines rather than ensuring compliance with the law. I could go on. When an industry is as rich as the oil and gas industry, it skews the decision-making process.

While some of the Wyoming development is not new, there is still intensive land development associated with new oil and gas production in the U.S.. In addition, when looking at impacts, we must consider cumulative impacts.

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