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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Are shale gas best practices really “best”?

I’ve written extensively on the essential work of The Nature Conservancy in gaining an understanding of the cumulative impacts of natural gas development in Pennsylvania (and elsewhere). Understanding the possible impacts is only half of the equation.  The second half – developing best management practices (BMPs) to avoid, minimize, or mitigate them – will in large measure determine whether Pennsylvania repeats the environmental mistakes of its past history of resource extraction. That requires continual work – development and application of practices, monitoring their results, and continuously improving them.  What is identified as a best practice today may not be six months from now, as more data and better understanding are developed.

TNC continues to do great work in developing both sides of this calculus.

In a peer-reviewed article published in the December 2012 issue of Environmental Practice journal, TNC discusses its analysis of 28 BMPs related to surface impacts of natural gas development on habitat and wildlife and their test of whether each practice was supported in the scientific literature. As TNC writes:

Extensive shale gas development is expected throughout the Appalachian Basin, and implementing effective avoidance and mitigation techniques to reduce ecosystem impacts is essential. Adoption of best management practices (BMPs) is an important approach for standardizing these techniques. For BMPs to be credible and effective, they need to be strongly supported by science.

TNC reached four basic conclusions:
  1. The vast majority of BMPs are broadly written.  This provides flexibility in implementation, “but the lack of site-specific details may hamper effectiveness and potential for successful conservation outcomes”; 
  2. Much more research is needed many BMPs, especially those relating to noise and light pollution; 
  3. The BMPs with the strongest scientific support include landscape-level planning and shared infrastructure; avoidance of sensitive areas, aquatic habitats, and core forest areas; and road design, location, and maintenance; and 
  4. “(A)ctions to enhance the development and implementation of BMPs should include public education, increased communication among scientists, improved data sharing, development of site-specific BMPs that focus on achieving ecological outcomes, and more industry collaboration.”

     TNC recommends that these practices should be central to any set of Shale Gas BMPs:

·        Landscape-Level Planning:
o   Avoid/minimize clearing in large forest patches and sensitive habitats
o   Avoid/minimize crossings of wetland and riparian habitats
·        Stream Crossings:
o   Locate stream crossing structures so they do not decrease channel stability or increase water velocity
o   Design road crossings to allow fish passage at all flow levels
·        Seasonal Restrictions / Timing of Operations:
o   Avoid earth moving operations during wet seasons and wet periods
o   Avoid construction in stream courses during spawning times
·        Road and Pipeline Location, Design, and Maintenance:
o   Manage pipelines for shrub cover rather than grass and create forested linkages at regular intervals to facilitate wildlife movement
o   Provide proper drainage and erosion control for all roads and pipelines

TNC’s essential work so far is presented in this Powerpoint presentation, which can be found on Penn State Extension’s rich natural gas webpage.  That page also links to a recorded webinar on TNC’s work.

TNC's calls for more and better science, specificity in prescriptions, improved communication, and industry collaboration must be heeded.

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