A new Penn State study finds that natural gas drilling in the Marcellus shale formation is rapidly transforming Pennsylvania’s landscape, especially agricultural and forestland. The study, sponsored by the Heinz Endowments, Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research and the USDA-NRCS Soil Survey program, was conducted by professors at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and published in the journal, Environmental Management.
The researchers found that most of the drilling is happening on private land on well pads that have only one to two wells per pad, fewer than 10 percent of the pads have five or more wells. That suggests that the industry is not using the pads as efficiently as possible and may be disrupting more acreage than is necessary to fully develop the gas resource.
Most of the drilling pads – 42 to 62 percent – are located on farmland. According to Patrick Drohan, the lead researcher on the study, gas drilling is now competing with food production in agricultural areas over the Marcellus. Drillers have located 38 to 54 percent of the pads in forest and, much of them in sensitive core forest areas near headwaters of streams. The Susquehanna River basin is the most intensely developed with 885 well pads at the time of this research – 26 percent of that development is in core forest areas. The study’s authors say that the level of disruption in the Susquehanna will present significant land and water management challenges in efforts to restore the river and the Chesapeake Bay.
If the drillers developed all the wells that they had permits for as of June 2011, they would convert an additional 1500 to 2500 acres of farmland and about 1280 to 2100 acres of additional forest to well pads. The drillers would need to also build 402 miles of new roads to access the pads.
The researchers concluded that given the intense development on private land, it is crucial to set public land aside for protection of ecosystems and wildlife habitat. They also call for an all-out effort involving government and the private sector to develop regional management plans to better plan for wells and infrastructure to minimize disruption to the landscape.
Unfortunately, landscape-level planning and management is exactly what is not happening now. Act 13, the dreadful drilling law, actually went in the opposite direction when it took away the ability of local governments to manage the impacts of drilling in their communities. It forces municipalities to allow gas wells, impoundments, pipelines, compressor stations and gas processing plants in agricultural areas.
Act 13 also did not address drilling on public land. Already half of the acreage in the state forest that lies over the Marcellus formation, more than 700,000 acres, is leased for drilling. More worrisome are the 61 state parks that are vulnerable to drilling because the state does not own the mineral rights and cannot keep the drillers out.
Despite the passage of Act 13, the debate over drilling is far from over. Given this study’s sobering information and its recognition of importance of conserving our public land to help ensure the quality of our streams and protect wildlife, that debate should begin immediately.