Penn State Gets Into the Fracking Weeds and Sprays Hyperbole

cost of renewables - Tom ShepstoneTom Shepstone
Natural Gas NOW


Penn State University has done another study. This one is on the fracking weeds and while the conclusions are reasonable PSU is spraying a lot of hyperbole.

Two friends sent me a copy of an article from the Penn State News about a new study the University has completed. It literally gets into the fracking weeds; weeds spread by fracking, that is. It is all about the spread of invasive species of plants along new roads and gas well pads created to extract natural gas. One friend thought the article was rather reasonable and got at a legitimate issue. My other friend had this to say:

The skeptical me wonders how normal dirt and gravel road use and maintenance compares to this “study.”

The average schmoe reading this stuff has no clue to the number of those roads in Pennsylvania or the constant maintenance work that does much the same.

Any vehicle—and there are a lot more using these roads—may be doing the same as what is reported here. And may be a/the major contributing factor/source of the problem.

Although invasive species are surely a legitimate issue, the aspiring curmudgeon in me was immediately drawn to the latter view. After digging in this garden a bit, I concluded my skepticism was warranted; there are weeds than taters to this study.

fracking weeds

Reading the abstract of the study, I didn’t find a lot to disagree about. It includes this reasonable conclusion:

Sixty-one percent of the 127 well pads surveyed had at least one invasive plant species present. Invasive plant presence on well pads was positively correlated with local propagule pressure on access roads and indirectly with road density pre-development, the number of wells, and age of the well pad. The vast reserves of unconventional oil and gas are in the early stages of development in the US. Continued development of this underground resource must be paired with careful monitoring and management of surface ecological impacts, including the spread of invasive plants. Prioritizing invasive plant monitoring in unconventional oil and gas development areas with existing roads and multi-well pads could improve early detection and control of invasive plants.

The title of the study (“Unconventional gas development facilitates plant invasions”) is where things start to go awry, though. Applying the rule of reason again, wouldn’t it have better titled “Control of invasive plant species important in unconventional gas development” or something along those lines? Some readers may imagine I’m quibbling, but doesn’t the abstract suggest the major point of the study is documenting the need for such control measures?

Is it really fair to suggest gas development is also contributing in some unusual manner to the invasive species problem? No, not if you’re aware of far more serious such issues with plants such as Japanese Knotweed which was brought here as an ornamental and now it lines both sides of the Delaware River (where there’s no fracking) because it’s spread by recreators, contractors and just about everyone else.

Let’s also remember two of the worst invasive species in our area of the country are that sickening smelling Autumn Olive and Multiflora Rose, both unhelpfully brought to us courtesy of the Natural Resource Conservation Service that used to recommend it for borders. Now, it consumes every unmowed meadow or pasture, with no help from fracking.

fracking weeds

Autumn Olive photo: John Oyston, Oak Hills Farm

Yes, perspective is necessary here and if it’s missing in the title of the study, it’s totally abused in the title of the Penn State News article:

“Shale gas development spurring spread of invasive plants in Pa. forests”

This is a headline obviously intended to draw attention and get the PSU study out and about with the ultimate goal of bringing in more research dollars as well as publicity for the authors. Worse, this article gives no attention to real point of the study; the need for management and control. It’s all hyperbole, in other words, with no balance and that’s the problem with much of academia and most of journalism today. Penn State News is engaged in a little shameless demagoguery, if you ask me, and I’m a Penn State Alumni.

It’s also recycled. Check out this 2010 article on page 4 of a Sierra Club rag, which indicates the new study says nothing in particular that’s new. It’s the same material, more or less, except for one thing; the 2010 pitch by David Mortenson, the study lead in both cases, acknowledges some other factors (emphasis added):

Perhaps the most startling finding of Mortensen’s research relates to the nature of dirt and gravel on forest roads that enables invasive plants such as Japanese stiltgrass to thrive.

“The crushed limestone used to surface many forest roads and to line culverts and drains along those roads are creating ideal conditions for the invasives to spread rapidly,” he said. “The high alkalinity sediment from the stone, mixed with water running off the roads during storms, eventually spills out into the forests, carrying invasive plant seeds and creating areas for them to grow quickly. The high alkalinity prevents native plants that have become adapted to acidic forest soils from growing, and invasives such as Japanese stiltgrass fill the void.”

Ironically, the crushed limestone is being used on many forest roads and in ditches and drains that parallel mountain streams precisely because the material leaches a high-alkalinity slurry that improves the productivity and water chemistry of the streams. That benefits the wild trout and other aquatic organisms that have suffered in many mountain streams after decades of acidic atmospheric deposition (acid rain).

“That only complicates the battle against the spread of invasive plants into Eastern forests and shows the interconnected nature of ecosystems,” Mortensen said. “But measures need to be taken to slow the spread of invasive plants such as Microstegium, because over the long run they will change the nature of our plant communities by outcompeting native plants.”

Yes, government policy that encourages use of crushed limestone is at least partly to blame, according to the 2010 Mortenson, but now Penn State News says its all about the fracking weeds. Notice, too, the 2010 discussion simply refers to roads and not to natural gas development roads per se.

There’s something fishy when Sierra Club journalism is more balanced than academic news. A little further research suggests Mortenson may have some weed choppers to grind. He took part in a junk science conference held in New York City in 2013. Here’s the flyer:

fracking weeds

You’ll note the Catskill Mountainkeeper logo at the bottom right and Grassroots Environmental Education as co-sponsors; both being totally fractivist enterprises. Not only that, but look carefully (click the image for a sharper pdf version) at the list of speakers. They include David Brown, David Carpenter and Paul Rubin, all of whom we’ve previously written about here. This was a fractivist conference, in other words, bought and paid for by the usual suspects. What the heck was Mortenson doing there if he, too, doesn’t have a fractivist bent? It’s a serious question and one readers of that hyped-up, no-balance Penn State News piece ought to ask. There are a lot of other weeds here.


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16 thoughts on “Penn State Gets Into the Fracking Weeds and Sprays Hyperbole

  1. Does PA still spray chemicals along the edges of rural roads to suppress plant growth? Anybody ever ask what chemicals are used, how much of that gets into the surface water and rivers, who is responsible for determining which chemicals and at what concentration are used, what protections are used for the workers deploying the stuff?

    Or is natural gas development the only threat to the environment? Enquiring minds want to know.

  2. Invasive plant species (and other than plant, too) are very widespread here in the US, due to their importation and use by ordinary citizens or by normal international traffic and trade. They get spread as much by animals, like birds, and the wind, probably much more than by physical transport due to human activity. The few invasive plants that one might find near well pads or well access roads could easily be controlled via active monitoring and treatment, maybe by properly trained well service people (or by fractivists, who seem to have lots of free time and energy).

  3. there are many threats to our environment ; NG is the latest and the most potent so far in my county.,
    and Tom, anything that criticizes NG in any way is not accepted by you even the Penn State Study.

    You’re skeptical of everything but the Gas Industry….
    wonder why?
    who’s supported by the Gas Industry to keep your column alive…?
    can you show your supporters and see how many are the Gas Industry?

    • I am not from the natural gas industry Vera. In fact I was an intervenor in a ferc docket on a pipeline project which is where I met the antifracking folks and then a citizen participant in an lng import project, which the antifracking movement flat out created a conspriacy theory about export on and had zero qualms about lying to reporters, politicians, multiple agencies and govt bodies about.

      Plenty of people including those concerned about environmental issues have good reason to be skeptical of just about anything side these days when it comes to the subject of fracking , natural gas or pipelines. The reason for that is the onslaught of misinformation and hysteria your movement speed wherever it goes. Maybe you should consider that? Certainly I don’t think there are no real concerns and risks that come with the gas development and pieplines but Mr Shepstone is correct in that invasive species preceded this development and certainly there are measures with management that can be taken to address the concern.

    • In fact both Catskill mountainkeeper and grassroots environmental group, listed on the flyer from 2013 in this post, were involved in the port Ambrose lng export conspiracy theory. Patti Woods of grassroots even went on the radio broadcasting this conspiracy theory. What might she know about fracking ? They frack in Port Washington on Long island Vera?

  4. A study brought to you by the “same folks” (i.e. Penn State) that brought us one of the worst invasive species in PA …. crown vetch!!

    From a quick internet search …. “Penn State University researchers H. Burton Musser and Fred Grau worked on crown vetch breeding for forage and erosion control, eventually releasing a cultivar called ‘Penngift’ in 1953. It was used along the Pennsylvania Turnpike and later promoted relentlessly as the Interstate highway system expanded across the nation in the 1960s and 70s. In 1981, the Pennsylvania legislature proclaimed ‘Penngift’ as the official “Beautification and Conservation” plant of the commonwealth.”

    It is native to Asia and Europe. It was genetically altered and introduced by Penn State scientists.

    The moral of the story …. Scientists in weedy houses should toss “fertilizer”.

    • Well said. When you realize that solar and wind projects can contribute more to the spread of invasives due to their inherent infrastructure , the gas industry (including gas derived by renewable resources such as wwtp and ag digesters and landfills) and pipelines pale in comparison.

  5. Of course, you realize that the study was conducted and published by researchers at Penn State, not the university itself. A subtle yet important difference. I doubt that PSU officials signed off prior to the study being submitted for publication. As far as your critique goes, I think that you are really grasping at straws to criticize a sound study that should otherwise be informative and helpful to the gas industry. You folks really have thin skins.

    • I think we all know that universities have lots of people at them and they don’t all sign off on each study.

      Not thin skinned, just not a fan of Crown Vetch. A horrible invasive species. As a geologist, I like rocks and like to see rocks along the roadside. Crown vetch was designed to cover rocks … cover outcrops along the road.

      I’d love to see Penn State or another institution look into the Crown Vetch invasion. Let’s get that invasive species mess cleaned up, too. And like it or not, it is an invasive species propagated by Penn State, PA DOT and PA Turnpike Commission.

      • As a plant ecologist, I’m not a big fan of crown vetch (aka dotweed), either. Responsibility for reducing crown vetch lies mainly with an agency like DCNR or county conservation districts – not an educational / research institution.

        To try to delegitimize the study from PSU by bringing up an action taken by the university over 60 years ago struck me as being unreasonable.

        • Hey Ken as a plant ecologist I would assume you are familiar with the basics of climate change. Are you aware the antifracking movement says natural gas is worse than coal in that respect? What do you make of this professor howarth who is on the board of the antifracking organization food and water watch? Are you aware of the mass misinformation being proliferated by the antifracking pipeline resistance movement? That’s been going on for years. I wrote this state task for in pa about this.

          • Hey Karen. Thanks for changing the subject. I have not personally conducted research on comparative GHG emissions from natural gas vs coal (couldn’t find funding to purchase the rather expensive equipment needed to measure CO2 and methane flux). My understanding from reading the literature is that as long as natural gas companies are careful not to leak methane into the atmosphere, then natural gas is a better fuel then coal from climate change perspective. But the relatively sparse amount of data that I’ve seen indicates that the gas companies are not that careful, and are actually fighting regulations to limit methane emissions. Why is that?

  6. I built a retention pond two years ago and got an invasion of a broad leaf plant called mullein along the pond bank. it grows about 6 feet tall and it blocks out the growth of other grass. Livestock won’t eat it. I have a gas well about a mile away. Do you think that fracking is the cause of these weeds? maybe the NY attorney general will file suit on my behalf.

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