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Thursday, September 6, 2012

US Geological Survey doing critically important work on landscape impacts of natgas development

Using highly accurate geospatial data and high resolution aerial imagery from 2004-2010, The U.S. Geological Survey is documenting landscape change resulting from construction of well pads, new roads and pipelines for natural gas and coalbed methane exploration in Pennsylvania's Bradford and Washington counties. That work will help develop an understanding of the cumulative impacts of that development and the potential consequences for ecosystems and wildlife, human health, water quality, invasive species and socioeconomic impacts. 

The study, "Landscape Consequences of Natural Gas Extraction in Bradford and Washington Counties, Pennsylvania, 2004 to 2010," found that in Bradford County, 642 natural gas extraction sites resulted in more than 1500 hectares (3707 acres) of disturbance, including 74 kilometers (45 miles) of new roads and 178 kilometers (110 miles) of new pipelines. In Washington County, 949 natural gas extraction sites resulted in more than 1800 hectares (4448 acres) of disturbance, including 277 kilometers (172 miles) of new roads and 216 kilometers (134 miles) of new pipelines. 

Even though the disturbance represents well less than one percent of the total land area of each county - and even though some of the disturbance will eventually be reclaimed when wells are completed; plus, cleared rights of way for pipelines and roads should shrink somewhat post-construction - these are very significant numbers. In a news release announcing the publication of the report, USGS Director Marcia McNutt said "The widespread use of hydraulic fracturing…is…modifying the landscape at an unprecedented rate compared with other forms of energy development. The value of this study is that it documents emerging issues with a rapidly expanding practice, so that all involved in decision making can make informed choices." 

This quantitative look at the levels of landscape disturbance, forest fragmentation and loss, and other changes to land use and land augments early work that suggests that, very conservatively, close to 10% of Pennsylvania’s forest cover could be damaged or lost from natural gas and pipeline development in the coming decades. With continuation of USGS’ work, those numbers can be greatly sharpened.  What is clear now is that landscape disturbance will affect lots more than ecosystems, human health, and water quality.  It will, for example, profoundly impact Pennsylvania’s two largest industries - 
agriculture and tourism.

This data is critically important for “informed choices” and the development of smart policies and smart regulations to govern the shale gas era in a way that conserves Penn’s Woods and all of its natural treasure.  But it is equally critical for the natural gas industry.  Hard data on landscape consumption is vital to the development of smart practice by natural gas producers and pipeline companies – practices that can save the industry money – as much as 5% of overall development costs, according to IEA’s Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas report.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported on the study today, which includes comments from me.

This study is great work by USGS.  It will hopefully extend to all of Pennsylvania’s gas-producing counties, and continue to be updated.

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