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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shale gas versus - and for - the hermit thrush

This piece by Patrick McShea, an educator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, beautifully illustrates part of what is at stake in the shale gas boom – the challenge of obtaining the benefits of shale gas while preserving our natural heritage and environment.

Pennsylvania is now the number four gas producing state, and we may be in for seven more decades of drilling.  The cumulative impacts of this development are almost too large to comprehend.   The Nature Conservancy has provided a window onto this issue with an analysis of impacts based on a very conservative case of 60,000 wells drilled in Pennsylvania by 2030.  (There are estimates as high as 200,00o Marcellus wells, and that does not include exploration of other shale beds, which is already underway here.)  TNC estimated that the land disturbance associated with drilling those 60,o00 wells – plus up to 27,000 miles of new gathering lines and at least 1,700 miles of new transport lines that will be needed to connect those wells to market - are projected to damage and fragment 1.6 million acres of Pennsylvania forest – over 9 percent of the state’s forest cover.  These lands contain nearly 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s globally rare and threatened species and nearly 80 percent of the state’s most intact brook trout watersheds. The clearings and disturbances, TNC says, will disrupt forest ecosystems and threaten forest interior species. 

We have every reason to be very worried about the hermit thrush.

Clearly, we must connect the dots on the cumulative impacts of shale gas development and work to minimize them.   The Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board, 55 major investment organizations,  and the International Energy Agency all have called for the gas industry – drillers and pipeline companies – to perform landscape-level and watershed-level planning (which, IEA points out, can save industry money) to minimize the industrialization of the landscape and the impact on the natural world.

Industry leaders are saying that they should embrace this kind of planning.

Now, we must get them to do it. The hermit thrush is depending on us.

But we’re not done here.

In focusing on the severe potential impacts of the shale gas boom on the hermit thrush, in its good intentions the article avoids the other elephant in the room – climate change.  Climate disruption is the single biggest long-term threat to our natural heritage – like songbirds.  It’s happening before our eyes in Pennsylvania.  We have a responsibility to look at the whole picture of the threat to the hermit thrush and its brethren, which is inconvenient to shale gas opponents who would ban fracking.

Natural gas is at once part of the problem – and part of the solution.  It provides the most readily-deployable large-scale tool to combat climate change, and to pave the way to a low-carbon future.

So, we must embrace shale gas and hold its development to the highest standards if we want to protect the hermit thrush.

It should not be shale gas versus the hermit thrush.  We must have both. And with responsible action by the industry, deep engagement with stakeholders, and with tough regulations on gas development, I believe we can.  

Whether or not we will is up to all of us.

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