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Forest fragmentation in PA

Forest Fragmentation and O&G Development in PA’s Susquehanna Basin

In this forest fragmentation analysis, FracTracker looked at existing vegetation height in the northern portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin. The vegetation height data is available from LANDFIRE, a resource used by multiple federal agencies to assess wildfire potential by categorizing the vegetation growth in 30 by 30 meter pixels into different categories. In the portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Basin where we looked, there were 29 total categories based on vegetation height. For ease of analysis, we have consolidated those into eight categories, including roads, developed land, forest, herbs, shrubs, crops, mines and quarries, and open water.

Methods

We compared the ratio of the total number of each pixel type to the type that was found at vertical and horizontal wells in the region. In this experiment, we hypothesized that we would see evidence of deforestation in the areas where oil and gas development is present. Per our correspondence with LANDFIRE staff, the vegetation height data represents a timeframe of about 2014, so in this analysis, we focused on active wells that were drilled prior to that date. We found that the pixels on which the horizontal wells were located had a significantly different profile type than the overall pixel distribution, whereas conventional wells had a more modest departure from the general characteristics of the region.

Figure 1 - Vegetation profile of the northern portion of Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River Basin. The area is highly impacted by O&G development, a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years.

Figure 1 – Vegetation profile of the northern portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin. The area is highly impacted by O&G development, a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years.

In Figure 1, we see that the land cover profile where vertical wells (n=6,198) are present is largely similar to the overall distribution of pixels for the entire study area (n=40,897,818). While these wells are more than six times more likely to be on areas classified as mines, quarries, or barren, it is surprising that the impact is not even more pronounced. In terms of forested land, there is essentially no change from the background, with both at about 73%. However, the profile for horizontal wells (n=3,787) is only 51% forested, as well as being four times more likely than the background to be categorized as herbs, which are defined in this dataset as having a vegetation height of around one meter.

Why Aren’t the Impacts Even More Pronounced?

While the impacts are significant, particularly for horizontal wells, it is a bit surprising that evidence of deforestation isn’t even more striking. We know, for example, that unconventional wells are usually drilled in multi-well pads that frequently exceed five acres of cleared land, so why aren’t these always classified as mines, quarries, and barren land, for example? There are several factors that can help to explain this discrepancy.

First, it must be noted that at 900 square meters, each pixel represents almost a quarter of acre, so the extent of these pixels will not always match with the area of disturbance. And in many cases, the infrastructure for older vertical wells is completely covered by the forest canopy, so that neither well pad nor access road is visible from satellite imagery.


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

The map above shows horizontal and vertical wells in a portion of Centre County, Pennsylvania, an area within our study region. Note that many of the vertical wells, represented by purple dots, appear to be in areas that are heavily forested, whereas all of the horizontal wells (yellow dots) are on a defined well pad in the lower right part of the frame. Panning around to other portions of Centre County, we find that vertical wells are often in a visible clearing, but are frequently near the edge, so that the chances of the 30 by 30 meter pixel that they fall into is much more likely to be whatever it would have been if the well pad were not there.

We must also consider that this dataset has some limitations. First of all, it was built to be a tool for wildfire management, not as a means to measure deforestation. Secondly, there are often impacts that are captured by the tool that were not exactly on the well site. For this reason, it would make sense to evaluate the area around the well pad in future versions of the analysis.

Figure 2 - A close up of a group of wells in the study area. Note that the disturbed land (light grey) does not always correspond exactly with the well locations.

Figure 2 – A close up of a group of wells in the study area. Note that the disturbed land (light grey) does not always correspond exactly with the well locations.

In Figure 2, we see a number of light grey areas –representing quarries, strip mines, and gravel pits –with an O&G well just off to the side. Such wells did not get classified as being on deforested land in this analysis.

And finally, after clarifying the LANDFIRE metadata with US Forest Service personnel involved in the project, we learned that while the map does represent vegetation cover circa 2014, it is actually build on satellite data collected in 2001, which has subsequently been updated with a detailed algorithm. However, the project is just beginning a reboot of the project, using imagery from 2015 and 2016. This should lead to much more accurate analyses in the future.

Why Forest Fragmentation Matters

The clearing of forests for well pads, pipelines, access roads, and other O&G infrastructure that has happened to date in the Susquehanna Basin is only a small fraction of the planned development. The industry operates at full capacity, there could be tens of thousands of new unconventional wells drilled on thousands of well pads in the region through 2030, according to estimates by the Nature Conservancy. They have also calculated an average of 1.65 miles of gathering lines from the well pad to existing midstream infrastructure. With a typical right-of-way being 100 feet wide, these gathering lines would require clearing 20 acres. It isn’t unusual for the total disturbance for a single well pad and the associated access road to exceed ten acres, making the total disturbance about 30 acres per well pad. Based on the vegetation distribution of the region, we can expect that 22 of these acres, on average, are currently forested land. Taking all of these factors into consideration, a total disturbance of 100,000 to 200,000 acres in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin due to oil and gas extraction, processing, and transmission may well be a conservative estimate, depending on energy choices we make in the coming years.

This forest fragmentation has a number of deleterious effects on the environment. First, many invasive plant species, such as bush honeysuckle and Japanese knotweed, tend to thrive in recently disturbed open areas, where competing native plants have been removed. The practice also threatens numerous animal species that thrive far from the forest’s edge, including a variety of native song birds. The disturbed lands create significant runoff into nearby rivers and streams, which can have an impact on aquatic life. And the cumulative release of carbon into the atmosphere is staggering – consider that the average acre of forest in the United States contains 158,000 pounds of organic carbon per acre. As the area is 73% forested, the total cumulative impact could result in taking 5.8 to 11.6 million tons of organic carbon out of forested storage. Much of this carbon will find its way into the atmosphere, along with the hydrocarbons that are purposefully being extracted from drilling operations.

Wayne National Forest map and drilling

Wayne National Forest Could Be Deforested – Again

Guest article by Becca Pollard

Eighty years ago, Southeastern Ohio was a wasteland of barren, eroding hills. During the 18th and 19th centuries this once heavily forested area in the Appalachian foothills had been clear cut and mined beyond recognition. When the Great Depression struck, lowering crop prices made farming unprofitable in the area, and 40% of the population moved away.

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a public work relief program that employed men aged 18-25 to do manual labor related to conservation and development of natural resources such as planting trees, constructing trails, roads, and lodges, fighting wildfires, and controlling erosion. The following year, Ohio’s legislature agreed to allow the federal government to purchase land in the state for the purpose of establishing a national forest. The Forest Service was tasked with restoring the land for what is now called Wayne National Forest (WNF). A tree nursery was established near Chillicothe, and with the help of the CCC and volunteers, including members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, garden clubs, and school children, reforestation began.

Photos Credit: US Forest Service

An Area on the Mend

Today, WNF comprises three units that span 12 Ohio counties in the Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau. The hills are covered in biologically diverse mixed mesophytic forest, which includes approximately 120 species of trees and provides habitat for at least 45 species of mammals, 158 species of birds, 28 species of reptiles, 29 species of amphibians, and 87 species of fish. The US Forest Service estimates that 240,000 people visit this ecological wonder annually, according to Forest Recreation Program Manager, Chad Wilberger, in Nelsonville, Ohio. The restoration of barren public land to its current state is a great achievement. If it continues to be protected, Wayne could one day resemble the old growth forest that thrived here before the arrival of European settlers.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), however, has recently decided to lease up to 40,000 acres of Wayne to gas and oil companies for horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The first auction took place last December resulting in the lease of 700 acres. A second auction this March leased another 1,200 acres. Nearly all of this land lies within the 60,000 acre Marietta Unit of the forest. This brings Oil & Gas Expressions of Interest (EOI) acreage to roughly 7.5% of all WNF owned parcels in this unit.

Wayne National Forest and Adjacent Existing Oil and Gas Infrastructure
Below is a map of the Wayne National Forest, along with parcels owned by WNF (shown in gray) and those that might be subject to unconventional oil and gas development (gray parcels outlined with dashes). We also include existing unconventional oil and gas infrastructure near the park. Explore the map below, or click here to view the map fullscreen.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Not new, not old

Gas and oil development is not new to the Wayne. Since the passage of The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the US Forest Service’s land management plan for WNF has included conventional drilling, and derricks are a common sight on both public and private land in southeastern Ohio.

Fracking (unconventional drilling), however, has a far greater impact, requiring clear cutting of large areas of land for the construction of concrete well pads, and the use of millions of gallons of water that will become contaminated during the process and then transported by truck to injection wells. Accidents can be catastrophic for workers and nearby residents, and fracking and waste water disposal have been linked to earthquakes in Ohio.

In 2012, BLM updated its WNF Land and Resource Management Plan to allow fracking in the forest without conducting new impact studies.

What is at risk?

The Marietta Unit of the WNF is located in Monroe, Perry, and Washington counties in Southeastern Ohio along the Ohio River. Within its boundary are a wealth of trails used for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, and mountain biking, campgrounds, and waterways ideal for kayaking and fishing. Both the highest and lowest points in the Wayne lie in this unit, as does the Irish Run Natural Bridge. The area is also known for its exceptional wildflowers, as shown in the photos below.

One popular recreation area, Lamping Homestead, lies directly within an oil and gas Expression Of Interest (EOI) parcel #3040602400 (See Map Above), one of the areas under consideration for lease. In the 1800s, it was the site of the Lamping family’s farm, but today all that remains of the settlers is a small cemetery with an iron gate atop a hill overlooking a small lake. Six campsites are situated around the western side of the lake, and two intersecting hiking loops rise into the wooded hills to the east. On the western side of the parking lot is a covered picnic area. A creek flows out of the lake and into Clear Fork, a tributary of the Little Muskingum River, across the road from the parking lot.

Both the lake and stream are popular boating and fishing areas. Lamping is an excellent spot for wildlife viewing. The lake, the creeks that flow in and out of it, and the surrounding wooded hills support an impressive variety of plant and animal species. During the day, visitors might spot ducks, geese, great blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, summer tanagers, red spotted newts, box turtles, northern water snakes, garter snakes, deer, rabbits, and muskrats. At night, they could be greeted by a cacophony of voices from frogs, owls, and coyotes.

Species of trees, plants, and fungus are also numerous. In winter, stands of white pine pop out against the bare branches of oak, hickory, maple, buckeye, and other deciduous trees. In spring, eye-catching splotches of blooming dogwood and redbud contrast against the many shades of green. But hikers who pull their gaze away from the brightly colored canopy and look down are rewarded with an abundance of wildflowers and the butterflies they attract, as well as many varieties of mushrooms and fungus, including such edible varieties as morels, wood ear, and dryad’s saddle.

Estimating Disturbances

It is unclear how much surface disturbance would occur on public land if this parcel were to be fracked, but even if the well pad and pipelines were constructed on private land adjacent to the forest, in order to drill under the forest, the public land and its inhabitants and visitors would certainly be impacted.

There is no question that noise and air pollution from traffic and construction would be disruptive both to wildlife and to human visitors. Explore various photos of the oil and gas industry in the gallery below:

The extraction process requires 2 million to 6 million gallons of fresh water each time a well is fracked. The rate at which hydraulic fracturing’s water demand is increasing on a per-well basis here in Ohio reached an exponential state around Q4-2013 and Q1-2014 and continues to rise at a rate of 3.1 million gallons per well per year (Figure 1).

Ohio Hydraulic Fracturing Total and Per Well Freshwater Demand between Q3-2010 and Q3-2016.

Ohio Hydraulic Fracturing Total and Per Well Freshwater Demand between Q3-2010 and Q3-2016.

In Ohio, oil and gas companies are allowed to pull this water directly from streams and rivers at no cost. All this is possible, despite the fact that after its use it is so contaminated that it must be disposed of via injection wells and is permanently removed from the water cycle. The industry is already pulling water from streams in the Marietta Unit of the WNF for use in fracking on private land. Fracking public land simply means water withdrawals will occur on a much larger scale.

Ohio and West Virginia Shale Water Demand and Injection Waste Disposal
This map shows Utica wells weighted by water demand and disposal (and/or production). It also depicts water, sand, and chemical usage as well as injection waste and oil production. Explore the map below, or click here to view map fullscreen.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Inevitable methane leaks, in addition to contributing to climate change, affect humans and wildlife in their immediate vicinity, causing headaches and nausea and even killing trees and plants.

In addition to the anticipated harm that fracking inflicts upon a natural area, there is also a risk of accidents with potentially devastating consequences. Residents of Monroe County have already seen a few in recent years from fracking on private land. In 2014, a well pad fire in the village of Clarington resulted in a chemical spill that contaminated nearby Opossum Creek, killing 70,000 fish. The same year a large gas leak 15 miles south in the village of Sardis resulted in the evacuation of all homes within half mile radius.

Recent studies have shown that extraction wells, in addition to injection wells, can cause earthquakes. Unsurprisingly, Monroe County has seen a spike in seismic activity with the increase in fracking activity in the area. The most recent incident was a 3.0 magnitude earthquake in the forest less than five miles from Lamping Homestead in April of this year.

Supporters of Wayne National Forest

Many people have repeatedly spoken out against BLM’s plan, submitting a petition with more than 100,000 signatures, and protesting outside Wayne National Forest Headquarters and Athens Ranger Station in Nelsonville. They have even organized voters to call and write letters to Regional Forester Kathleen Atkinson and legislators, including Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, and Governor John Kasich. BLM has not budged on its decision, unfortunately, insisting that leasing this land for fracking, and associated infrastructure buildout, will have “no significant impact.”

This May, the Center for Biological Diversity, Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio Sierra Club, and Heartwood, a regional organization focused on protecting forests, filed a lawsuit against BLM, aiming to void BLM leases and halt all fracking operations within the national forest.

Concerned citizens continue to organize raise awareness as they await the outcome of the suit.

Becca Pollard is Freelance Journalist and Co-founder of Keep Wayne Wild


Data Downloads

Click on the links below to download the data used to create this article’s maps:

Songbird Nurseries of Pennsylvania

Guest Blog by Paul T. Zeph, Director of Conservation for Audubon Pennsylvania

Millions of small, beautiful, colorful songbirds that live in the tropics for most of the year venture north each spring to Pennsylvania to nest in our deep, quiet forests—forests that are now in danger of being fracked apart into industrial zones of natural gas extraction.

Pennsylvania’s forests provide nesting habitat for 17% of the world’s Scarlet Tanagers. Photo courtesy of the PA Gaming Commission.

Pennsylvania’s forests provide nesting habitat for 17% of the world’s Scarlet Tanagers. Photo by Jake Dingel, via the PA Game Commission.

The names of these birds are often described by their vibrant colors:  Black-throated Blue Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Cerulean Warbler, or Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Here, in the deep remnants of Penn’s Woods, they find an abundance of caterpillars and other insects that are critical protein for raising baby birds. Once the young are fledged and finding food on their own, the parents and juveniles head back south in early fall to their “non-breeding” habitat, which is more accurately called the Neotropics; that is, the New World tropics of the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

Most of these Neotropical migrants cannot nest successfully in small woodlots or fragmented forests, and depend upon large, undisturbed tracts of woodland that we call “core” forests.  These are forests that are at least 300 feet from a permanent edge – such as a road, utility corridor, or housing development.  Pennsylvania still has some very large forest blocks, primarily in the northern tier of the state, that serve as bird “nurseries”—places where the nest density is high and many species are successfully fledging young.

A recently-completed Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas is undergoing analysis by many researchers, and the data is helping us to identify the “best of the best” places in the state needed to sustain populations of our Neotropical visitors, for which we have a North American responsibility.  Not surprisingly, these quiet, large blocks of forest are also favorite places for humans to use for passive recreation, relaxation, and spiritual renewal.  If you want a quiet, peaceful place to escape the modern world for a weekend, look for places frequented in June by Blackburnian Warblers or Blue-headed Vireos.


Unconventional drilling and key forest songbird habitat in Pennsylvania. To access the legend, layer descriptions, and other tools, click on the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner of the map.

Since many populations of our Neotropical species have been dramatically declining over the past 50 years, we need to protect as much nesting habitat as possible.  In 100 years, we will probably see many species disappear from Pennsylvania altogether due to fragmentation and climate change.  Our northern forest blocks may be a last refuge for a number of bird and other animal species that cannot survive in our sprawling suburbs or the ecological changes that will come with a warming planet.

Extensive gas infrastructure in forested Pennsylvania land. Photo by Pete Stern, 2013.

Extensive gas infrastructure in forested Pennsylvania land. Photo by Pete Stern, 2013.

Fracking is a heavily industrialized activity that not only causes short-term fragmentation, noise, and ecological disruption, but can lead to long-term ecological collapse of healthy, intact forest blocks.  Birds are only one of many types of animals that are impacted by the vast array of fracking infrastructure that is becoming all-too-common in our state’s quiet and shady bird nurseries, trout streams, and recreation areas:  widened roads letting in sunlight and nest predators; long, wide pipelines creating miles of permanent edge; thousands of acres of forest floor buried under compacted gravel pads; rain events carrying road and well pad gravel into sensitive headwater streams, burying aquatic life.

We have precious few public lands left in Pennsylvania that have not been leased for mineral extraction.  We must do all that we can to prevent leasing of lands where the state owns the mineral rights; and, where the rights are severed and owned by another, we must find compromises and solutions that keep as much of the forest intact as possible.

Severed rights and leased lands in PA state forests

Leases and Severed Rights in PA’s State Forests

A few years ago, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the agency responsible for state park and state forest lands throughout Pennsylvania, published maps on their website showing which state forest lands had been leased for the purpose of unconventional oil and gas exploration and development.  Not only has that page been taken down, but the data are also not among the hundreds of Pennsylvania-specific datasets available on the Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA), to which DCNR is a key contributor.

This data does still exist though, and it was provided to the FracTracker Alliance from DCNR upon request, along with data showing areas of the state forest where unconventional oil and gas rights are owned by the state, which is not always the case.  However, this fulfillment of our data request came with some strings attached:

  1. I understand that the accuracy of this data set and its boundaries cannot be guaranteed and should not be considered precise.
  2. I will not distribute raw data to other entities outside the scope of this request.
  3. I will annually provide the Bureau of Forestry with a status update of the project activities and findings.  If the project is abandoned, I will provide the Bureau of Forestry copies of the available information from the project.
  4. I will provide the Bureau of Forestry with copies of draft reports, articles, publications and so forth that result from this analysis.
  5. If requested, I agree to supply the Bureau of Forestry with copies of data analysis.
  6. I understand that the Bureau of Forestry or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is not relinquishing any rights or interests with this agreement.

Obviously, this ties our hands with regards to making the data available for download, either through the download section of our site, or through ArcGIS Online, but we feel as if the scope of our request was worded in such a way as to allow us  to produce a map of these layers, and make that available for public viewing.  Readers interested in obtaining similar data will have to contact DCNR directly, until the agency decides to release the data regarding Pennsylvania’s public lands without conditions.

We have combined this data with drilling data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, so that we can finally take a closer look at drilling on public lands in Pennsylvania, including an approximation of which wells are drilled on lands have been leased by the state, and which by third parties.  So with all appropriate disclaimers, here is that map:


Drilled unconventional wells in Pennsylvania and control of mineral rights on state forest land. To access full controls, such as legends, layer controls, and layer descriptions, please click the expanding arrows in the top-right corner of the map.

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