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Offshore oil and gas exploration federally approved

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator

Right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) with calf

Background

Drilling in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the United States has been off-limits for nearly four decades. However, last Friday, the Obama administration’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) opened the Atlantic outer continental shelf for oil and gas exploration starting in 2018, with oil production commencing in 2026. In a December 2013 report by the American Petroleum Institute (API) , API estimated that offshore exploration and federal lease sales could generate $195 billion between 2017 and 2035.

Problems for marine mammals, sea turtles, fish

Aside from the inherent risks of catastrophic drilling accidents similar to BP’s Deepwater Horizon in April 2010, open ocean oil and gas exploration can pose severe problems for marine life. Environmentalists have voiced alarm over the techniques used to explore for hydrocarbons deep below the ocean floor. Using “sonic cannons” or “‘seismic airguns,” pulses of sound are directed at the sea bottom to detect hydrocarbon deposits.

Underwater communication by marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, relies on sound transmission over long distances — sometimes thousands of miles. These animals use sound to navigate, find mates and food, and communicate with each other. Noise pollution by common ships and supertankers is known to disrupt and displace marine mammals, but naval sonar has been documented as a cause of inner ear bleeding, hearing loss, tissue rupture, and beach strandings. According to the Ocean Mammal Institute:

These sonars – both low -frequency (LFAS) and mid -frequency can have a source level of 240 dB, which is one trillion times louder than the sounds whales have been shown to avoid. One scientist analyzing underwater acoustic data reported that a single low frequency sonar signal deployed off the coast of California could be heard over the entire North Pacific Ocean.

Natural Resources Defense Council also expressed concern over naval sonar: “By the Navy’s own estimates, even 300 miles from the source, these sonic waves can retain an intensity of 140 decibels – a hundred times more intense than the level known to alter the behavior of large whales.”

As destructive as naval sonar may be, oil and gas exploration sonic cannons–also known as seismic airguns– (at 216 – 230 dB) create disruptions to marine life many orders of magnitude greater. Fish and sea turtles are also affected, with catch rates of fish decreasing up to 70% when airguns were used in a commercial fishing area, according to a study by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research.

The intensity and duration of the sonic cannon pulses during oil and gas exploration are an important factor in this equation. According to the Huffington Post, “The sonic cannons are often fired continually for weeks or months, and multiple mapping projects are expected to be operating simultaneously as companies gather competitive, secret data.” Collateral damage for the exploration is far from insignificant, the article continues:

The bureau’s environmental impact study estimates that more than 138,000 sea creatures could be harmed, including nine of the 500 north Atlantic right whales remaining in the world. Of foremost concern are endangered species like these whales, which give birth off the shores of northern Florida and southern Georgia before migrating north each year. Since the cetaceans are so scarce, any impact from this intense noise pollution on feeding or communications could have long-term effects, Scott Kraus, a right whale expert at the John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory in Boston, said.

‘No one has been allowed to test anything like this on right whales,” Kraus said of the seismic cannons. “(The Obama administration) has authorized a giant experiment on right whales that this country would never allow researchers to do.’

North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered species of cetaceans in the world.

Map of ranges of marine mammals potentially affected and towns opposing sonic cannon exploration for oil and gas

Although currently, the waters off New Jersey and New England are off-limits for exploration, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia encouraged the federal government to open their off-shore waters for oil and gas surveys. Nevertheless,  many ocean-front communities have come out strongly against the use of sonic cannons and their impacts on marine life. To date, 15 communities from New Jersey to Florida have passed resolutions opposing this form of oil and gas exploration.

FracTracker has mapped the locations of these communities, with pop-up links to the resolutions that were passed, as well as the ranges of 17 marine mammals found along the Atlantic seaboard of the US.  These data come from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2014 Red List of Threatened Species. You can toggle ranges on and off by going to the “Layers” drop-down menu at the top of the map. The default presentation for this map currently shows only the range of North Atlantic right whales. For a full-screen version of this map, with access to the other marine mammal ranges, click here.

WV Field Visits 2013

H 2 O Where Did It Go?

By Mary Ellen Cassidy, Community Outreach Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

A Water Use Series

Many of us do our best to stay current with the latest research related to water impacts from unconventional drilling activities, especially those related to hydraulic fracturing.  However, after attending presentations and reading recent publications, I realized that I knew too little about questions like:

  • How much water is used by hydraulic fracturing activities, in general?
  • How much of that can eventually be used for drinking water again?
  • How much is removed from the hydrologic cycle permanently?

To help answer these kinds of questions, FracTracker will be running a series of articles that look at the issue of drilling-related water consumption, the potential community impacts, and recommendations to protect community water resources.

Ceres Report

We have posted several articles on water use and scarcity in the past here, here, here and here.  This article in the series will share information primarily from Monika Freyman’s recent Ceres report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers, February 2014.  If you hunger for maps, graphs and stats, you will feast on this report. The study looks at oil and gas wells that were hydraulically fractured between January 2011 and May 2013 based on records from FracFocus.

Class 2 UI Wells

Class 2 UI Wells

Water scarcity from unconventional drilling is a serious concern. According to Ceres analysis, horizontal gas production is far more water intensive than vertical drilling.  Also, the liquids that return to the surface from unconventional drilling are often disposed of through deep well injection, which takes the water out of the water cycle permanently.   By contrast, water uses are also high for other industries, such as agriculture and electrical generation.  However, most of the water used in agriculture and for cooling in power plants eventually returns to the hydrological cycle.  It makes its way back into local rivers and water sources.

In the timeframe of this study, Ceres reports that:

  • 97 billion gallons of water were used, nearly half of it in Texas, followed by Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Colorado and North Dakota, equivalent to the annual water need  of 55 cities with populations of ~ 5000 each.
  • Over 30 counties used at least one billion gallons of water.
  • Nearly half of the wells hydraulically fractured since 2011 were in regions with high or extremely high water stress, and over 55% were in areas experiencing drought.
  • Over 36% of the 39,294 hydraulically fractured wells in the study overlay regions experiencing groundwater depletion.
  • The largest volume of hydraulic fracturing water, 25 billion gallons, was handled by service provider, Halliburton.

Water withdrawals required for hydraulic fracturing activities have several worrisome impacts. For high stress and drought-impacted regions, these withdrawals now compete with demands for drinking water supplies, as well as other industrial and agricultural needs in many communities.  Often this demand falls upon already depleted and fragile aquifers and groundwater.  Groundwater withdrawals can cause land subsidence and also reduce surface water supplies. (USGS considers ground and surface waters essentially a single source due to their interconnections).  In some areas, rain and snowfall can recharge groundwater supplies in decades, but in other areas this could take centuries or longer.  In other areas, aquifers are confined and considered nonrenewable.   (We will look at these and additional impact in more detail in our next installments.)

Challenges of documenting water consumption and scarcity

Tracking water volumes and locations turns out to be a particularly difficult process.  A combination of factors confuse the numbers, like conflicting data sets or no data,  state records with varying criteria, definitions and categorization for waste, unclear or no records for water volumes used in refracturing wells or for well and pipeline maintenance.

Along with these impediments, “chain of custody” also presents its own obstacles for attempts at water bookkeeping. Unconventional drilling operations, from water sourcing to disposal, are often shared by many companies on many levels.  There are the operators making exploration and production decisions who are ultimately liable for environmental impacts of production. There are the service providers, like Halliburton mentioned above, who oversee field operations and supply chains. (Currently, service providers are not required to report to FracFocus.)  Then, these providers subcontract to specialists such as sand mining operations.  For a full cradle-to-grave assessment of water consumption, you would face a tangle of custody try tracking water consumption through that.

To further complicate the tracking of this industry’s water, FracFocus itself has several limitations. It was launched in April 2011 as a voluntary chemical disclosure registry for companies developing unconventional oil and gas wells. Two years later, eleven states direct or allow well operators and service companies to report their chemical use to this online registry. Although it is primarily intended for chemical disclosure, many studies, like several of those cited in this article, use its database to also track water volumes, simply because it is one of the few centralized sources of drilling water information.  A 2013 Harvard Law School study found serious limitations with FracFocus, citing incomplete and inaccurate disclosures, along with a truly cumbersome search format.  The study states, “the registry does not allow searching across forms – readers are limited to opening one PDF at a time. This prevents site managers, states, and the public from catching many mistakes or failures to report. More broadly, the limited search function sharply limits the utility of having a centralized data cache.”

To further complicate water accounting, state regulations on water withdrawal permits vary widely.  The 2011 study by Resources for the Future uses data from the Energy Information Agency to map permit categories.  Out of 30 states surveyed, 25 required some form of permit, but only half of these require permits for all withdrawals. Regulations also differ in states based on whether the withdrawal is from surface or groundwater.  (Groundwater is generally less regulated and thus at increased risk of depletion or contamination.)  Some states like Kentucky exempt the oil and gas industry from requiring withdrawal permits for both surface and groundwater sources.

Can we treat and recycle oil and gas wastewater to provide potable water?

WV Field Visits 2013Will recycling unconventional drilling wastewater be the solution to fresh water withdrawal impacts?  Currently, it is not the goal of the industry to recycle the wastewater to potable standards, but rather to treat it for future hydraulic fracturing purposes.  If the fluid immediately flowing back from the fractured well (flowback) or rising back to the surface over time (produced water) meets a certain quantity and quality criteria, it can be recycled and reused in future operations.  Recycled wastewater can also be used for certain industrial and agricultural purposes if treated properly and authorized by regulators.  However, if the wastewater is too contaminated (with salts, metals, radioactive materials, etc.), the amount of energy required to treat it, even for future fracturing purposes, can be too costly both in finances and in additional resources consumed.

It is difficult to find any peer reviewed case studies on using recycled wastewater for public drinking purposes, but perhaps an effective technology that is not cost prohibitive for impacted communities is in the works. In an article in the Dallas Business Journal, Brent Halldorson, a Roanoke-based Water Management Company COO, was asked if the treated wastewater was safe to drink.  He answered, “We don’t recommend drinking it. Pure distilled water is actually, if you drink it, it’s not good for you because it will actually absorb minerals out of your body.”

Can we use sources other than freshwater?

How about using municipal wastewater for hydraulic fracturing?  The challenge here is that once the wastewater is used for hydraulic fracturing purposes, we’re back to square one. While return estimates vary widely, some of the injected fluids stay within the formation.  The remaining water that returns to the surface then needs expensive treatment and most likely will be disposed in underground injection wells, thus taken out of the water cycle for community needs, whereas municipal wastewater would normally be treated and returned to rivers and streams.

Could brackish groundwater be the answer? The United States Geological Survey defines brackish groundwater as water that “has a greater dissolved-solids content than occurs in freshwater, but not as much as seawater (35,000 milligrams per liter*).” In some areas, this may be highly preferable to fresh water withdrawals.  However, in high stress water regions, these brackish water reserves are now more likely to be used for drinking water after treatment. The National Research Council predicts these brackish sources could supplement or replace uses of freshwater.  Also, remember the interconnectedness of ground to surface water, this is also true in some regions for aquifers. Therefore, pumping a brackish aquifer can put freshwater aquifers at risk in some geologies.

Contaminated coal mine water – maybe that’s the ticket?  Why not treat and use water from coal mines?  A study out of Duke University demonstrated in a lab setting that coal mine water may be useful in removing salts like barium and radioactive radium from wastewater produced by hydraulic fracturing. However, there are still a couple of impediments to its use.  Mine water quality and constituents vary and may be too contaminated and acidic, rendering it still too expensive to treat for fracturing needs. Also, liability issues may bring financial risks to anyone handling the mine water.  In Pennsylvania, it’s called the “perpetual treatment liability” and it’s been imposed multiple times by DEP under the Clean Streams Law. Drillers worry that this law sets them up somewhere down the road, so that courts could hold them liable for cleaning up a particular stream contaminated by acid mine water that they did not pollute.

More to come on hydraulic fracturing and water scarcity

Although this article touches upon some of the issues presented by unconventional drilling’s demands on water sources, most water impacts are understood and experienced most intensely on the local and regional level.   The next installments will look at water use and loss in specific states, regions and watersheds and shine a light on areas already experiencing significant water demands from hydraulic fracturing.  In addition, we will look at some of the recommendations and solutions focused on protecting our precious water resources.

Controversy in the Loyalsock

Controversy in the Loyalsock

By Mark Szybist, Staff Attorney, PennFuture

What are the Clarence Moore Lands?

The Clarence Moore lands are 25,621 acres of “split estate” lands in the Loyalsock State Forest where the surface rights are owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the oil and gas rights are owned by two private parties – an affiliate of Anadarko Petroleum Corporation (Anadarko) and a private company called International Development Corporation (IDC). The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) calls this acreage the “Clarence Moore lands,” after an individual who once owned the area’s oil and gas interests.

What is the controversy over the Clarence Moore lands?

The Clarence Moore lands have become controversial because Anadarko wants to drill gas wells on them (and build compressor stations, water impoundments, pipelines, and new roads). Because of the ecological and recreational sensitivity of the Clarence Moore lands, PA’s conservation community (and much of the general public) wants the DCNR to use its substantial powers to minimize surface activities, if not prevent them altogether.

In general, when a “split estate” exists in PA, the party that owns or controls the oil and gas estate has an implied right to use the surface that it does not own in order to extract oil and gas. The Clarence Moore lands present an exception to this rule. Due to a provision in the Commonwealth’s deed, the DCNR has the power to deny Anadarko access to 18,870 acres of the Clarence Moore lands – almost 75%. To obtain access, Anadarko needs a right-of-way from the DCNR. Conservationists are arguing that given this power, the DCNR has leverage to protect all of the Clarence Moore lands – including the 6,841 acres where Anadarko appears to have traditional “split estate” surface rights.

In March 2012 Anadarko submitted to the DCNR a development plan for the Clarence Moore lands. For almost a year, a coalition of conservation, recreation, fishing and hunting organizations (and thousands of private citizens) have been pressing the DCNR to conduct a public input process on the Clarence Moore lands before making any agreement with Anadarko. The coalition wants the DCNR to make public its environmental impact analyses, allow public comment on all development and non-development alternatives, and protect the Clarence Moore lands for future generations of Pennsylvania citizens. In April 2013 the DCNR conducted an invitation-only meeting about the Clarence Moore lands for “local stakeholders,” followed by a webinar in collaboration with the Penn State Extension of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. The DCNR announced on May 22, 2013 that it would hold a public meeting in Williamsport on June 3rd.

Why are the Clarence Moore lands so important?

The Clarence Moore lands are a wealth of ecological and recreational resources. They include the Old Loggers Path (OLP), an acclaimed 27-mile hiking trail that follows former logging trails and opens onto stunning vistas. According to DCNR documents, the OLP “will be taking the brunt of development [from Anadarko’s activities].”

The Clarence Moore lands include most of the watershed of Rock Run, an Exceptional Value (EV) stream widely hailed as the most beautiful stream in Pennsylvania. The headwaters of Rock Run and Pleasant Stream, another EV stream, emerge from ridge-top wetlands that provide habitat for several threatened or endangered plant and animal species.

The Clarence Moore lands provide habitat for numerous plant and animal species that Pennsylvania has classified as threatened, rare, or at risk (or determined to be candidates for these classifications). Among these species (to name just a few): the timber rattlesnake, northern water shrew, creeping snowberry, northern bulrush, northern goshawk, and yellow-bellied flycatcher. The Clarence Moore lands have been designated an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. (See p. 82 of this PDF).

Finally, the Clarence Moore lands are one of only a few large public land areas in north-central PA that have not been opened to gas development, and still contain relatively unfragmented forests.  The DCNR has already leased almost 21,000 other acres of Loyalsock (the forest is around 114,000 acres in all), and has also leased much of the Tiadaghton State Forest to the west and the Tioga State Forest to the north.

FracTracker map of Clarence Moore Lands and Activity

The map above shows the Clarence Moore lands as yellow and blue areas within the Loyalsock State Forest. In the yellow areas, the DCNR has exclusive control of the surface. In the blue areas, Anadarko has the right to use the surface to extract oil and gas. The locations of the yellow and blue Clarence Moore areas are based on documents obtained by PennFuture through the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law (RTKL) and on maps that the DCNR presented at the April 2013 webinar noted above.

The map also shows the oil and gas wells, pipelines, roads, compressor stations, and impoundments that conservationists believe Anadarko has proposed to build in the Clarence Moore lands. The locations of this infrastructure are based on the RTKL documents and on hikers’ observations of survey flags within the Loyalsock State Forest.


Questions and comments about this issue or the June 3rd public meeting can be directed to Mark Szybist: Szybist@pennfuture.org.

Land-Use Change, the Utica Shale, and the Loss of Ecosystem Services

By Ted Auch, PhD – Ohio Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

In Ohio, Utica Well pads range in size from 5-15 acres. (Estimates for pipeline and retention ponds are unavailable.) That figure gives us the chance to estimate how hydraulic fracturing influenced changes to land-use, ecosystem services, plant productivity, and soil carbon loss.

Working with Caleb Gallemore and his Ohio State University GIS class, we created a data set that estimated the percent cover for each well pad prior to drilling using the USGS and Department of Interior’s 2006 National Land Cover Database (NLCD, 2006) [1].

Figure 1. Ohio’s original vegetation cover and Utica Well permits as of April 30th, 2013

Figure 1. Ohio’s original vegetation cover and Utica Well permits as of April 30, 2013

Accordingly, the state was and is dominated by:

  • mixed oak (from 12,038 mi2 pre-settlement to 7,911 mi2 today) to the east and
  • maple-beech-birch (from 13,917 mi2 pre-settlement to 2,521 mi2 today) to the west stretching into the southeast and northwest corner of Ohio.

During pre-settlement times additional dominant forest types included:

Since industrialization:

  • The faster growing elm-ash-cottonwood has arisen as a sub-dominant forest type currently comprising 1,237 mi2.
  • Additional sub-dominant forest types comprising 100-140 mi2 of Ohio’s land area include aspen-birch (134 mi2), white-red-jack pine (124 mi2), and loblolly-shortleaf pine (108 mi2).

Our results suggest the average amount of deciduous forest [2] disturbed – as a percent of total well pad area – by well pad establishment is 9.8 ± 5.5% per well pad with a range of 4.7% in Stark and Holmes Counties and a high of 24% in Monroe County (Figure 2). With respect to pasture and crop displacement the average is 11.7 and 10.7% per well pad, respectively, with significantly higher between-county variability for crop cover (±5.5% Vs ±3.6%).

Figure 2. Percent Cover across Ohio’s 269 Utica Well Pads assuming an average area of 7.75 acres and the National Land Cover Database 2006 (NLCD 2006) as a proxy for previous land-use.

Figure 2. Percent Cover across Ohio’s 269 Utica Well Pads assuming an average area of 7.75 acres and the National Land Cover Database 2006 (NLCD 2006) as a proxy for previous land-use. – Click to enlarge

Converting this data into ecosystem services requires certain assumptions about plant growth, soil organic matter content, and soil compaction utilizing Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) soil data to model the latter two and established peer-reviewed estimates for plant pattern and process (Follett, Kimble, & Lal, 2000; Lobell et al., 2002; Valentine et al., 2012). The basics of this analysis – assuming subsurface soils are 25% more compact and contain 45% less organic matter than the surface 12-13 inches (Needelman et al., 1999) – demonstrated that well pad establishment has displaced approximately 28,205 tons of surface and 78,348 tons of subsurface soil carbon [3] for a total of 106,554 tons of carbon equivalent to 389,986 tons of CO2.

Additionally, the displacement and/or removal of vegetation – assuming the average Ohio forest is 40-80 years old [4] – has resulted in the annual loss of 1,050, 6,516, and 9,461 tons of crop, pasture, and forest carbon production, respectively. This is equal to 17,027 tons of carbon or 62,319 tons of CO2, which when added to the aforementioned soil loss is equivalent to the CO2 footprint of 25,198 Ohioans [5].

Over the life of these three ecosystem types, well pad establishment displaces 1,021,619 tons of carbon. This equates to 3.74 million tons of CO2 or 230,034 Ohioans, which is roughly 9,000 less people than reside in Akron and Warren combined. Another way way to frame this figure is that it would be equivalent to the eightieth largest US city between Henderson, NV and Scottsdale, AZ.

At CO2’s current valuation this Ohio Utica well pad “carbon displacement” is roughly $18.71 million. However, if we assume this is at the lower end of reasonable CO2 estimates and that a range of $10-75 dollars is more indicative of carbon’s price, then we estimate the value of well pad displaced carbon is more like $41.29-309.68 million.

The true value of Utica well pad carbon displacement is somewhere in this range and entirely dependent on your belief in the feasibility of valuing CO2 emissions. However, these estimates do point to some of the externalities associated with Utica Shale development currently ignored by industry lobbyists and political advocates. There is far more work to be done as it relates to understanding well pads’ influence on ecosystem services, crop productivity, and local hydrology; this is simply an attempt to begin quantifying such effects.


References

Follett, R F, Kimble, J M, & Lal, R. (2000). The Potential of U.S. Grazing Lands to Sequester Carbon and Mitigate the Greenhouse Effect. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press LLC.

Fry, J, Xian, G, Jin, S, Dewitz, J, Homer, C, Yang, L, . . . Wickham, J. (2011). Completion of the 2006 National Land Cover Database for the Conterminous United States. PE&RS, 77(9), 858-864.

Lobell, D B, Hicke, J A, Asner, G P, Field, C B, Tucker, C J, & Los, S O. (2002). Satellite estimates of productivity and light use efficiency in United States agriculture, 1982-98. Global Change Biology, 8(8), 722-735.

Needelman, B A, Wander, M M, Bollero, G A, Boast, C W, Sims, G K, & Bullock, D G. (1999). Interaction of Tillage and Soil Texture Biologically Active Soil Organic Matter in Illinois. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 63(5), 1326-1334.

Valentine, J, Clifton-Brown, J, Hastings, A, Robson, P, Allison, G, & Smith, P. (2012). Food vs. Fuel: The use of land for lignocellulosic next generation energy crops to minimize competition with primary food production. Global Change Biology Bioenergy, 4(1), 1-19.


Footnotes

[1] The NLCD estimates land cover using sixteen classes at a 98 foot spatial resolution applied to 2006 Landsat satellite data or 4-5 years prior to the first Ohio Utica permit in September, 2010 (Fry et al., 2011)

[2] Primary tree species include red and sugar maple, red and white oak, white ash, black cherry, American beech, hickory, and tulip poplar according to the most recent USFS Forest Inventory Analysis “Ohio Forests 2006”.

[3] Along with roughly 6,536 tons of soil nitrogen assuming an Ohio soil Carbon-To-Nitrogen ratio of 14.6.

[4] Utilizing the USFS’s Forest Inventory and Analysis EVALIDator Version 1.5.1.04 tool we determined that 62% of Ohio’s oak-hickory, maple-beech-birch, elm-ash-cottonwood, and oak-pine forest types, which account for 94% of the state’s forest area, are 40-80 years old.

[5] Assuming 17.3-18.6 tons of CO2 per capita based on Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center as cited by the World Bank.

Life and Times of Loyalsock

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, and Samantha Malone, Manager of Science and Communications

It’s so quiet you can hear moss squish underfoot and the tapping of a woodpecker a quarter-mile distant. These are the sounds of a lesser-known Pennsylvania Wilds, the lush woodlands and rock-studded beauty of the  Loyalsock State Forest.  Picture a pristine landscape of ferny grottos, expansive bogs, and blueberries ripe for the picking.   The squeaky-clean air seems hyper-enriched, a photosynthetic side-effect of stands thick with maple, birch, hemlock, and pine. Currents of endless streams race impatiently. Rattlesnakes shy but leery, lie and rest.

Across Lycoming and Sullivan counties, the shale gas industry is leaving its industrial footprint, from the iconic Pine Creek Valley through Tiagdaghton State Forest to the Loyalsock and environs.  Yet while Williamsport booms from the infusion of gas, many of the hidden, ecologically-rich spaces of the Loyalsock – from Rock Run to Devil’s Elbow – still whisper.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), of the 2.2 million acres in the state forest system, 675,000 acres are available for gas development. This includes 385,400 acres under Commonwealth-issued leases and 290,000 acres of where the agency doesn’t own the oil and gas rights. The latter scenario applies to 25,621 acres of the Loyalsock’s 114,494 acres where “severed” rights are owned by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and International Development Corporation.

Circa July 2012, there is ample evidence of the changes on the horizon. The oranges and yellows of seismic testing equipment (photo left) adorn the sleepy forest roads and the electric pink of ribbon markers decorates the trees and ground. The few leased cabins look lost and lonely, but soon they could have the steady companionship of hundreds of trucks rumbling past their doors carrying water, sand, and some not-so-benign chemicals and waste fluids. The narrow, dirt roads – bound to require widening and repair – are probably inadequate for such intensive use and potentially treacherous for heavy rigs, occasionally known to roll down steep embankments and spill their secrets.  Heavy traffic and structurally-degraded roads can cause significant sediment pollution as suggested by the studies of the Penn State Center for Dirt and Gravel Roads. Sediment is the enemy of native brook trout, our handsome state fish, who adamantly require cool, clear water to survive. Currently, there’s an abundance of such good water within Loyalsock.

But traffic and roadway impacts are but one piece of the shale gas puzzle. Could well casings fail and methane bubble into surface waters (recent accidents in Bradford County and Tioga County are suspected of causing just such problems)? How much will air quality be degraded by diesel emissions from trucks, pumps, generators, drill rigs, and other equipment? How will floodlights and flaring affect star-packed skies or the incessant drone of compressor stations antagonize solitude? While off the beaten path, the forest sees its share of visitors, and recreational trails are a signature of the region. The 27-mile Old Logger’s Path (photo below) is a backpacker’s dream crisscrossing a world of palpable wonders and subterranean severed rights.

Hiking, a popular recreation, and the forest’s quality scenery are big components of tourism, consistently one of Pennsylvania’s leading industries. According to the Pennsylvania Tourism Office, visitor spending across the Commonwealth totaled $34.2 billion in 2010. Comparatively, Penn State research (p.31) indicated that, “…the Marcellus gas industry increased Pennsylvania’s value added by $11.2 billon” for 2010. In the northeastern Pennsylvania, drilling is slowing due in part to the low price of natural gas. The ramifications for the Loyalsock are uncertain but the lasting attraction of idyllic open spaces is unequivocal.

Nevertheless, Anadarko and its partner seek the gas near the Old Loggers Path and vulnerable populations of forest interior birds. Such species require large unbroken tracts of contiguous forest. A recent study in Environmental Management authored by P.J. Drohan, Margaret Brittingham, and others reports that 26% of well pads in the Susquehanna basin are located in core forests (many on DCNR lands). The study quotes a DCNR paper: “further (shale gas) development on state forests is likely to alter the ecological integrity and wild character of state forests.” The authors believe other research supports that assertion.

The Loyalsock is a microcosm of the state forest-shale gas paradigm.  As of a March 2012 DCNR presentation, 814 Marcellus well locations had been approved by the Bureau of Forestry on state forest land and 447 Marcellus wells had been drilled in the state forests including more than 80 well pads. The agency estimates a total of 3810 new Marcellus wells by 2018. With an average well pad size of about five acres, many miles of new and widened roads, even more miles of pipelines, plus intermittent water impoundments and compressor stations, it’s easy to wonder what our state forests will soon look like. And what about the legacy of silviculture cultivated by Pinchot, Rothrock, and other conservation pioneers?  The Pennsylvania state forest system is certified by the Rainforest Alliance under Forest Stewardship Council standards ensuring that the products coming from these forests are managed in an environmentally-responsible manner. At what threshold of shale gas activity will this certification – which adds significant value to finished wood products – be jeopardized?

Since it is likely that Anadarko and its partner will pursue their claims, the fate of the severed parts of the Loyalsock may be shaped by the existence or lack-thereof of a surface use agreement between Anadarko and DCNR. Where DCNR has leased and controls oil and gas rights, a surface use agreement is entered into that steers the development activity in a more sustainable manner and away from especially sensitive forest features. In the case of severed rights, there is uncertainty about the applicability of surface use agreements. However, with little else to ameliorate the collateral damage of gas development in undeveloped surroundings, prudence would suggest it’s a tool worth using.

The stakes are high. DCNR’s own list of “challenges” posed by shale gas for state forest lands include: surface disturbance, forest fragmentation, habitat loss and species impacts, invasive plants, loss of wild character, recreation conflicts, water use and disposal. With the mission of the Bureau of Forestry to “ensure the long-term health, viability and productivity of the Commonwealth’s forests and to conserve native wild plants,” they have their work cut out for them, especially as more drilling tracts are developed.

In the months to come, the industry will be watched, technologies will change, activists will speak, parties will talk; meanwhile, the big, old rattlers, wise but weary, grow restless.

Surveying Unassessed Waters in PA

According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), only 22,000 of the 86,000 miles of flowing water in PA have been sampled by biologists from their organization. As of 2011, about 12,800 miles were designated as wild trout waters. (It is hard to believe that we have so many streams to begin with!) In recent years, many groups in the Commonwealth have increased their efforts to assess these streams due to increases in potential water quality threats, such as land development and unconventional natural gas extraction. By default, unassessed streams are given the lowest classification category by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP). It is important to prioritize streams according to their water quality, the potential for wild trout populations, and the risk posed by nearby human activities. Why trout?  Glad you asked. While there are many other ways to determine water quality, the presence of wild trout increases the streams’ water quality protection classification in PA.

A few weeks ago I spoke with an engaging gentleman from Susquehanna University, Dr. Jonathan Niles, who is working on a unique stream sampling project through the PFBC with a number of partners to do just that. Pennsylvania’s Unassessed Waters Initiative seeks to classify the 92% of streams that don’t have monitoring data about.  In 2010, PFBC partnered with two universities to survey trout populations in 30 streams each under a small grant. This work was expanded in 2011 with even more entities signing on, including Susquehanna University, and resulted in a significant increase in the number of classified streams.  The project involves entering the GPS locations of the unassessed streams and then collecting trout population data from the field. In the past two years the Unassessed Waters Initiative has surveyed 1,049 streams and documented wild trout in about 55% of those streams. Check out the progress they have made in the two maps below, the first from 2008 before sampling efforts were increased, and the second from 2012:

2008 Unassessed Waters in PA

Unassessed Waters in PA – 2008 – Unassessed streams in red, Assessed in blue

2012 Unassessed Waters

Unassessed Waters in PA – 2012 – Unassessed streams in red, Assessed in blue

In addition to the sampling protocol set forth by PFBC, Dr. Niles and his students Caleb Currens, John Panas, and Sam Silknetter collected benthic macroinvertibrate (which are PA DEP water quality indicators) and algae species data, conducted fish population estimates on every stream (not just where there was more than 5 fish of a certain species), sampled fish diets, and collected water for additional heavy metals and contaminant analysis. The preliminary fishery data from last year are currently being reviewed by the PADEP.

Some of the Initative’s efforts have focused on the quality of streams near shale gas drilling operations, especially due to the risk that erosion and sedimentation poses to trout’s habitat. Dr. Niles feels that the data collected from initiatives like this one provide valuable operating insight for development and natural gas companies, as sensitive areas can be avoided by companies – saving them time and money.

With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Iinitiative has been funded again this year. Dr. Niles’ team is contracted to assess 20 streams in Loyalstock that were previously unassessed. An additional 40 streams will be assessed by Dr. Niles’ team elsewhere in PA. While they have made extraordinary progress, there is still much work to be done. What does a project with such a broad geographic scope like this one cost? In addition to travel and salary costs, each benthic macroinvertebrate sample runs about $200-250 to analyze in a lab. It is likely that this year alone there will be at least 60 samples collected by Dr. Niles’ team, if not more. The financial cost of conducting this kind of research may seem high, but the failure to do so could cost Pennsylvanians much more. It is our hope, here at FracTracker, to keep up-to-date with the Unassessed Waters Initiative as the teams go out this year. Check back soon for more information, or contact us if you would like to get involved with either the sampling or funding of this initiative: info@fractracker.org.

Below are photos of Dr. Niles’ assessment team taken during their field sampling trips.

In addition to the Fish and Boat’s own crews, the following 15 groups are partners for this year’s Unassessed Waters Initiative:

  • Penn State University
  • California University of Pennsylvania
  • Susquehanna University
  • Clarion University
  • Lycoming College
  • Kings College
  • Keystone College
  • Juniata College
  • Allegheny College
  • Mansfield University
  • Lock Haven University
  • Duquesne University
  • Loyalsock Creek Watershed Association
  • Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
  • Trout Unlimited – Eastern Abandoned Mines program

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, FracTracker; and DrPH Student, University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health department. (email) malone@fractracker.org

Special thanks to Jon Niles (Susquehanna University) and Bob Weber (PA Fish and Boat Commission) for their contributions to this article and efforts in the field!

Statewide County Natural Heritage Inventory Map

We Love Maps

At FracTracker, you could say that we are a bit obsessed about maps and data.  The amazing map below was created and is updated by the PA Natural Heritage Program (PNHP). While this is a recurring project for PNHP, with the increase in shale gas activity in recent years it is ever more important to protect and document changes to sensitive ecosystems.

Important Natural Heritage Areas

PA Natural Heritage Sites - Click for Interactive Map

Click on the map to check out a statewide interactive map featuring data from the County Natural Heritage Inventory. The results presented in this map represent a snapshot in time, highlighting the sensitive natural areas within Pennsylvania. Core habitat is outlined in red (places where any disturbance could be detrimental to certain ecological species), supporting landscape in purple, and landscape conservation areas in yellow.

By clicking on the map, you will be taken to the Heritage Program’s site where you can search the map by county, watershed, or an address to learn more about the protected areas near you. On this page you can learn about the species of special concern such as the Copperhead, the Bog Turtle,  and Northern Cricket Frog.

About the Inventory

The County Natural Heritage Inventory is a cooperative program undertaken by the PNHP partnership. The County Natural Heritage Inventories (CNHI) have been systematic studies of the critical biological resources of the state, county by county. The primary focus of CNHIs has been on species of concern: those plants, animals, natural communities, and habitats most at risk of extinction at the global or local level. These projects are designed to identify, map and discus areas that support species of concern, exemplary natural communities and broad expanses of intact natural ecosystems that support components of Pennsylvania’s native species biodiversity. These areas are prioritized based upon their ecological qualities and provided with recommendations regarding their management and protection.

These studies were conceived as tools to assist in planning to avoid the accidental destruction of habitats supporting species of concern at both the county and municipal levels and have been used effectively in that capacity. CNHIs have been incorporated into comprehensive plans, consulted to plan development projects, and utilized by conservation organizations to prioritize their work. Additionally, these studies have been used to help in the development of recreational amenities, promotion of tourism industries and assistance in community development. CNHIs have also been a primary source for much of the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory permit review data. CNHIs can actually streamline economic and infrastructure developments by providing information on sensitive environmental features early in the planning process when adjustments can be made at little cost or delay.

The County Natural Heritage Inventory is a planning tool, and is not intended to be used as a substitute for environmental review. For more information, view the Statewide CNHI fact sheet.

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Youngstown Earthquake Related to Gas Extraction Industry?

Youngstown, Ohio rang out the old year in style, with a magnitude 4.0 earthquake that apparently felt as far away as Buffalo, but received attention nationally (See the LA Times blog titled 4.0 quake hits Youngstown Ohio. Yes, Ohio.) There is a widespread notion that the temblor was related to Class II injection wells in the area–see for example this Akron Beacon Journal article where Ohio state geologist Michael Hansen is quoted as saying there is “little doubt” that this latest in a series of 11 quakes is the result of activities at injection wells in the immediate area. The article goes on to say that his boss, Ohio Department of Natural Resources director James Zehringer, closed several injection wells in the area as the issue is being examined.

But wait a second…if you go to this NPR link, you see an AP story titled “Earthquake Strikes Near Ohio Fracking Site”, where the same James Zehringer is quoted as saying, “The seismic events are not a direct result of fracking.”

What gives? Actually, there is no discrepancy at all, except that the AP writer lumped injection wells together with hydraulic fracturing, which have some similarities in that they highly pressurized oil injections of oil and gas related fluids, but the two are in fact different. Therefore, saying that the seismic events are not a direct result of fracking is completely true.

But it does make one wonder…most of Pennsylvania has been deemed unsuitable for brine injection wells, which is why much of our waste water has gone to Ohio in the first place. But if these supposedly safe activities can result in a disturbance equivalent to 15 metrics tons of TNT, maybe we don’t really understand what we’re doing down there.

Here are maps showing earthquakes near the Ohio river basin since 1973. For more information on any event, hit the blue “i” button, followed by any map feature. Clicking the gray compass rose and double carat (^) will hide those menus.

Op Ed – So what’s the rush to drill for gas?

Reposted from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (August 17, 2011)

A seasoned environmental health professional looks at the Marcellus Shale
By Bernard D. Goldstein, M.D.

Haven’t we learned anything from our past mistakes?

Public health and the environment have been my life since 1966. I have been a U.S. Public Health Service officer stationed in Los Angeles, our most polluted city; an assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Reagan administration; and the director of an academic environmental health program in New Jersey, arguably our most polluted state.

Before the Marcellus Shale issue, I believed we had learned from past mistakes to approach potential environmental health risks intelligently. But now I’m not so sure.

Let me start by saying I’m in favor of extracting Marcellus Shale gas — but not yet. For reasons that include air quality and global climate change, natural gas is a better energy source than coal. At the risk of offending my environmentalist friends, I don’t believe that conservation measures combined with alternative energy sources will eliminate our need for fossil fuels within the next few decades.

I also agree it is in our national interest to decrease our reliance on fossil fuel imports. The gulf oil commission recently supported a return to drilling in the Gulf of Mexico because if we do not get this oil, Cubans, Venezuela or China will. But unless the Canadians can horizontally fracture under Lake Erie, the gas in the Marcellus Shale is ours for the taking.

The Marcellus Shale’s fixed location and limited amount of gas provides many reasons to go about it thoughtfully. Whenever we begin, we still will have at least the same amount of gas extracted over the same duration of time. In contrast, delaying allows us to prepare for three certainties…  Read more

If It’s Unsuitable For Mining, Is Drilling Advisable?

There are a handful of watersheds, predominantly in central Pennsylvania, that the Department of Environmental Protection has deemed to be unsuitable for mining activities.

According to pages 100-101 of the Oil and Gas Operator’s Manual, a region may be determined to be unsuitable for mining if the mining operation will:

  1. be incompatible with existing State or local land use plans or programs;
  2. affect fragile or historic lands in which such operations could result in significant
    damage to important historic, cultural, scientific and esthetic values and natural
    systems;
  3. affect renewable resource lands in which such operations could result in a
    substantial loss or reduction of long-range productivity of water supply or of
    food or fiber products, and such lands to include aquifers and aquifer recharge
    areas; or
  4. affect natural hazard lands in which such operations could substantially
    endanger life and property, such lands to include areas subject to frequent
    flooding and areas of unstable geology.

Marcellus Shale Permits in Areas Unsuitable for Mining (large)
Marcellus Shale permits that were issued in areas which were deemed to be “unsuitable for mining” according to the PA DEP in 2002.

These seem like worthy goals. So if these areas are unsuitable for coal mining, why is it OK to put gas wells there?


Surface coal mine. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Coal_mine_Wyoming.jpg

Granted, drilling a well is not quite the same impact as a surface mining operation, but to protect an area from one mode of mineral extraction and not the other seems inconsistent. After all, many of the problems with coal are still relevant for gas drilling, since the drilling operator must go through the coal seam to get to the gas. The pyrite associated with the coal is still exposed to air, meaning that the drilling mud and drill cuttings probably contain sulfuric acid, the key component of acid mine drainage (AMD).

And it’s not just the drill cuttings that could be a source of problems…it could be the well bore itself. Consider the Hughes Bore Hole, which, according to Wikipedia was drilled in the 1920’s to drain underground mines in the area, then capped in the 1950’s. So what’s the big deal? In the 1970’s, pressure built up and the hole burst open, and has been spewing about 800 gallons per minute of acid mine drainage ever since.


Hughes Bore Hole releasing acid mine drainage. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hughe%27s_Bore_Hole_071.jpg

Could drilling a gas well in the wrong place have the same effect?

Maybe to be safe we ought not drill in areas where geologists have determined that AMD could exist. That wouldn’t affect that many wells, would it?

MS Permits in Areas With AMD Potential (large)
Marcellus Shale permits in areas with acid mine drainage potential. Please click the map for a dynamic view and more information.

Oh. Well then let’s hope the well casing experts don’t have any bad days.

[Note: if you want to watch a video of Hughes Bore Hole and don’t mind salty language, click the Youtube link on the “Hughes Well Bore” link above.]