The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has released the first in a series of comprehensive reports detailing the mixed impact of unconventional shale development on the state's 2.2 million acres of public forest land.
The Shale Gas Monitoring Report, initiated in 2010, tracks the effects of oil and gas development in the forests by measuring their impact on everything from wildlife, surface water and vegetation to invasive species, forest conversion and recreation.
Horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in state forests has raised concerns about a wide range of environmental issues, including water quality and quantity, plant and animal habitats and aesthetics. Shale gas development requires portions of forest acreage to be cleared to construct well pads, roads and pipelines.
Although DCNR acknowledged in its report that such conversion directly affects forest land by increasing habitat fragmentation, regulators stopped short of drawing any firm conclusions, as its authors stressed that more data would need to be collected going forward.
Still, the report comes at a time when production in the Marcellus Shale is approaching 15 Bcf/d and as environmental advocates step up their calls for greater regulatory oversights and more detailed monitoring of the industry's impacts.
In February, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett proposed lifting a moratorium imposed by two-term predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell, that bars the state from issuing any new oil and gas leases. Corbett said he included the proposal in his 2014-2015 budget to generate an estimated $75 million in additional state revenues (see Shale Daily, Feb. 6).
Oil and gas management has been part of the state forest system since 1947. Since then, the state has conducted 74 oil and gas lease sales resulting in more than 2,000 wells. Since 2008, when DCNR held its first competitive gas lease sale for the Marcellus Shale, 568 horizontal wells have been drilled on forest lands. From 1947-2012, vertical and horizontal wells have generated nearly $736 million in state revenue.
Today, the 388,000 forest acres under lease to operators account for 15% of the shale gas produced in the state, and "shale gas production on the state forest likely will continue to grow as the areas currently leased begin or continue to be developed,” according to DCNR.
The shale monitor does not track air quality, a task of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which recently said emissions have decreased on additional regulations, shuttered coal-burning power plants and the use of more natural gas (see Shale Daily, April 4).
DCNR said initial surface water monitoring results in forest drilling areas have not identified any significant impacts due to shale gas development. Of the pads, impoundments and compressors constructed on state forests, more than 85% were on well-drained soils, while more than 80% were on soils with a medium to low surface runoff index. Of the pipelines constructed, more than 70% were within "well-drained to excessviely well drained" soils and within a medium to low surface runoff index.
According to the report, 191 well pads have been built in the forests and 104 miles of pipeline corridor have been built or widened to facilitate production in the core gas forest districts of northeast and southwest Pennsylvania. One hundred and sixty-one miles of road have also been improved or constructed for shale gas development.
The report said, however, the need for road access related to energy development has resulted in heavier traffic. While it acknowledged that many roads inside the state's forests have been upgraded and made "safer and easier" to drive on, development has eliminated some of the "wild character" of forest roads. No national hiking trails have been affected by Marcellus operators, but three state forest hiking trails have been impacted.
DCNR also identified 11 non-native invasive plant species at 14 well pads in the districts, with the largest population Japanese silt-grass. DCNR acknowledged too that state forests are under increased susceptibility to pest attack, but said more monitoring would be required to gauge that aspect.
While the report said wildlife would likely be impacted by development in over the longterm, latest data could not offer any evidence. DCNR authors said more wildlife monitoring would be needed before any firm conclusions could be reached.