Pennsylvania DCNR demonstrates how shale gas development improves the state forest system and ultimately preserves more of it for future generations.
Two years ago the USGS and Penn State both released reports on the impact of shale gas drilling on Pennsylvania’s forests. Both speculated on the amount of forest disturbance and fragmentation that might occur as a result of extensive drilling and ignored some of the evidence countering those suggestions or putting them in perspective. There’s been even more speculation of harm as Pennsylvania has opened up state forest properties to drilling. These fears have come to naught with the release of a new report from Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
DCNR Adds to State Forest Acreage in Midst of Shale Gas Development
Approximately 1,486 acres of forest have been converted to facilitate gas development in the core gas districts (state forests subject to shale gas development), including roads, infrastructure and well pads and pipelines. During the same time period (2008 to 2012), the bureau acquired 33,500 acres to add to state forest system, including 8,900 acres in core gas forest districts.
Read that again: state forest land grew by 33,500 acres and 8,900 acres of land was added to core gas forest districts, meaning there was a net total increase of 32,014 acres in state forest land and 7,414 acres in core gas forest districts. Why? Because, gas drilling is good for the DCNR budget and allows the Commonwealth to do things that might not otherwise have been possible. The report indicates, in fact, “oil and gas activity [during] the shale-gas period (through 2012..) has provided $582,250,644 in revenue.”
This is the big picture, the forest that too often gets lost in the trees of worry about insignificant things. It’s the same phenomena we see with regard to air emissions. It’s not the minute emissions from compressors that matter but, rather, the gigantic lowering of emissions at power plants where we are now able to substitute cleaner burning natural gas for coal. Likewise, it’s not the tiny forest disturbance involved with natural gas development that matters, but the ability of DCNR to protect far more land for future generations.
Gas Drilling on DCNR State Forest Lands Is Nothing New
You wouldn’t know it from many news reports but oil and gas drilling on Pennsylvania State Forest land has been taking place since 1947 and the acreage under lease is, even now, roughly 60% below the historic high:
Of the approximate 1,400 gas wells drilled on state forest lands from 1947 to 2008, approximately 750 remain in service as producing gas wells or as gas storage wells…The 74 lease sales mentioned above resulted in hundreds of thousands of acres of state forest lands being under lease at various times. The least amount of acreage under lease in any one year was fewer than 50,000 acres in the startup years of 1947 to 1951, and the greatest amount of acres under lease peaked in 1984 at near 1 million acres. The largest single lease sale offering of 450,000 acres occurred in 1982.
Another fact that doesn’t get a lot of attention is this; approximately 44 percent (673,000 acres) of the 1.5 million acres of State Forest is under lease, but only 386,000 acres is leased by DCNR. The remainder (287,000 acres) consists on leases on State Forest where the mineral rights had been severed from the property before being acquired by the Commonwealth. Yes, gas drilling would be occurring on Pennsylvania State Forest land whether the Commonwealth issued leases or not, which means it makes enormous sense for Pennsylvania to piggyback its own leasing program on those private leases and ensure all drilling is done properly and is coordinated. The breakdown of activity is provided by this chart from the report:
Gas Drilling on DCNR State Forest Land Is Well Managed
No one can read the Shale Gas Monitoring Report and not appreciate the degree to which gas drilling on State Forest properties is controlled and managed in conjunction with stewardship of these lands. One example is the emphasis on fresh water storage and piping to reduce trucking through the forests.
Another involves the use of best management practices to reduce the impact of new access and service roads and the upgrade of existing such roads. The report, for instance, includes this photograph of a State Forest road in Moshannon State Forest that was “improved for shale-gas development but retained wild character value. Note that the canopy is still closed over the top of the road.”
These management practices also extend to pipelines as the report notes the following:
An innovative method to preserve the wild character of a state forest road has been implemented at several large pipeline crossings. Traditionally, the intersections of pipelines and roads have created long, linear views of the cleared and maintained pipeline ROW. In the Tiadaghton State Forest, the district staff and gas company personnel collaborated to develop a layout for a large pipeline project that would minimize this negative visual effect. They minimized the width of the permanently maintained ROW, allowing for 60 to 70 percent of the initial clearing to be replanted as a forested site.
Conifer plantings are planned for the site because conifer trees grow at a faster pace and hold their foliage year round to further reduce the visual impacts. In addition, the ROW layout incorporated the use of a crescent shape as the ROW climbed the slope and also embedded “doglegs” to further break up the linear visibility of the ROW. These layout modifications limit the distance that the ROW is visible from the road.
DCNR Monitoring Shows Things Good and Getting Better
How has it all gone to date? Well, DCNR monitoring suggests it has gone pretty well and practices are constantly improving. Here are some of the relevant quotes from the report:
Initial water monitoring results have not identified any significant impacts due to shale-gas development. This is based on one round of field chemistry sampling throughout the shale-gas region and over a year of operation for 10 continuous monitoring devices in key watersheds.
Since shale-gas development began in Pennsylvania in 2008, there has been a marked decrease in several major air pollutants, such as sulfur, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide. This is due, in part, to the increased use of natural gas for power generation, the shutdown of several major facilities, and the installation of air pollution control equipment.
A short-term air quality study in Ramsey Village, in Lycoming County along the Pine Creek Rail Trail, did not detect air pollutants above rural background conditions.
Overall, the number of incidents has increased as the number of wells drilled on state forest lands has increased, but the overall number of incidents per well decreased by a factor of three from 2009 to 2012 [from 1.3 down to 0.41]. This shows a trend toward improvement of operator compliance with state environmental laws and regulations.
This indicates not only the strength of the DCNR management program, but also the ability of the industry to adapt to conditions and extract valuable natural gas resources with little impact on the natural environment. Most importantly, it demonstrates there is new about gas drilling on State Forest land. Natural gas, like the forests themselves, are there to be managed for the benefit of Pennsylvanians who depend every bit as much on the gas as they do on the timber. That’s seeing the forest, despite the beauty of the trees.