A new analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) finds that at the end of 2011, 70 of the largest oil and gas companies operating in the United States held leases covering at least 141 million net acres of American land—an area approximately the size of California and Florida combined, and equal to one sixth of the total US landmass. Federal lands made up 38.5 million acres of the total —an area slightly bigger than Florida.
It's a good bet, according to the Congressional Research Service, that 90% of the wells that will be drilled on all that acreage will use hydraulic fracturing.
The implications of these staggering figures are obvious, complex - and yet, I would suggest, largely not well-understood. In Pennsylvania at least, we're still in the early days of what promises to be decades more drilling. The cumulative impacts of all that drilling and fracking need careful study, monitoring, analysis, and regulation. They demand industry best practice. More fundamentally, comprehensive, landscape-level development planning must be required of oil and gas companies to avoid, minimize, and mitigate (in that order) impacts on air, water, wildlife, and all that land - particularly land that's held in public trust.
I've written in this blog about the many calls for such planning by industry leaders, investors, Federal and state governments, and leading national and international NGOs. And there's evidence that that kind of smart planning can not only minimize impacts but also save the industry money in the process. But progress on the ground in implementing smart planning is, at best, slow, and certainly not universal. That must change - especially in light of NRDC's analysis.
How does Pennsylvania stack up? There are at least seven million acres of Pennsylvania's 27 million acres leased for gas development. And the number may be as high as 10 million acres, according to a senior executive of a major exploration and production company that I've spoken to. So, between a quarter and a third of all of Penn's Woods is leased for gas development - twice the national average. And 700,000 acres of that total is state forest land where the Commonwealth either does not own the mineral rights or has leased the land for gas extraction. That's a third of the 2.2 million acre publicly-owned state forest.
So arguably, the potential cumulative impacts of natural gas development in Pennsylvania are far greater than they are nationally.
We - citizens of gas-producing states, and all Americans - have a lot riding on how well government and industry perform in stewarding privately and publicly-owned land.