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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tip of the iceberg: Landscape industrialization in PA from shale gas development

Last Wednesday in Washington, D.C., I spoke to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Global Leadership Council. My topic was landscape industrialization from shale gas development - a subject on which NRDC is doing great work. 

My focus was on Pennsylvania’s experience.  It starts with scale.  Pennsylvania is already the number four gas producing state in the nation. The Marcellus formation underlies two thirds of the state, and at least 7 million Pennsylvania acres - 25 percent of the land area of the state – and perhaps as many as 10 million acres – more than a third of the entire state - have been leased for gas drilling.   The scale of this industry - and its impacts - will dwarf all of the previous waves of energy development that punctuate Pennsylvania's history - combined.

Still, we’re in the early years of Pennsylvania’s shale gas era. reports that as of May 25, 2013, there are: 

  • 12,342 unconventional wells permitted in PA
  • 10,397 of those are horizontal wells
  • 7,100 of those are drilled or under development
  • 3,696 wells have reported production values
  • 75 new wells added in the last 21 days
  • 4,261 well-pads are permitted in the state

To put these numbers into some perspective, over the next several decades, tens of thousands of gas wells – and maybe as many as 200,000 Marcellus wells alone – will be drilled in Pennsylvania.  And that number doesn't include exploration of other shale beds - Utica, Upper Devonian, Trenton-Black River, and maybe even the Newark and Gettysburg Basins. At best, we're only 2 or 3 percent of the way into the shale gas era, 
and the Commonwealth may be in line for seven more decades of drilling.

In addition to all those wells, a spider web of tens of thousands of miles of roads, gathering lines, pipelines, and industrial infrastructure will connect those wells to market and in the process carve, gouge, and change the face of Pennsylvania for many decades to come.

I reviewed the early work on trying to understand the already-significant impacts from all of this by researchers at Penn State University and the U.S. Geological Survey. I talked about The Nature Conservancy’s estimates that from just (just?) 60,000 Marcellus wells, about 8 percent of the state’s forests - containing nearly 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s globally rare and threatened species - could be damaged or destroyed in the next 20-30 years. 

Pennsylvania obviously faces huge challenges in preserving our natural heritage in the face of the shale gas boom.

These landscape changes are happening before our eyes, but the ultimate scale is hard to grasp. The whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.  Whether or not the industry embraces – and regulators require - smart, landscape-level planning will go a long way to determining how severe the impacts will be  and what kind of Pennsylvania the shale gas era leaves to future generations.

But I also pointed out that the alternative – or hoped-for antidote – to shale gas drilling will not come without cost.  Getting to a renewable-dominant energy future will, for example, require construction of 110-190 million miles of new transmission and 47-80,000 miles of new intertie capacity.  Our landscape will be industrialized to feed our energy appetite unless a renewable-, efficient-, distributed generation-based future can be achieved.  That is unlikely at present.  There is no free energy lunch.


  1. "The scale of this industry - and its impacts - will dwarf all of the previous waves of energy development that punctuate Pennsylvania's history - combined."

    100 years ago, 100% of the Pennsylvania Wilds was completely clearcut. Old coal mines have fouled how many thousands of miles of streams in PA?

    I don't think that Marcellus drilling, in this modern era of regulation, it going to come anywhere close to impacting the environment as much as either of these industries, let alone all industries combined.

    These wells will have a lifespan of 30-50 years. Then they will be plugged and the forest will quickly reclaim the sites itself. After all, the Pennsylvania Wilds was a giant mud pit 100 years ago, and yet here today we sit and discuss its supposed fragility. I think we have to give mother nature a little more credit. She's pretty tough.

    We must get our energy from somewhere, and while I 100% support wind and solar, both are far more disruptive to the surface than gas drilling is. They will need access roads. They will need rights of way cleared for power lines that are wider than gas pipelines, and each windmill needs several acres cleared for installation. How many windmills would it take to equal the energy that can be harnessed from an 8 well Marcellus pad which will produce on average around 40 Billion cubic feet of gas? I have no idea about a wind mill, but 40BCF of gas can provide enough electricity to power nearly a million homes for an entire year.

    This context must be added to compare our energy options accurately.

  2. Mike,

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Completely agree about the often-ignored footprint of renewables, which is why I cited the NREL numbers on renewable energy transmission needs. I fought the battle of wind power siting standards when I was at DCNR and know the issue well. No form of energy development is totally benign from an environmental standpoint.

    On the main point - no extractive industry the state's history has developed across more than (when you count pipelines) two thirds of the land area of the state. Look at the maps of previous PA energy development waves that I link to. The scale of this industry is unprecedented, and even the best-regulated and best-performing industry working over that amount of landscape will have massive impacts. Already, USGS is calling the level of disturbance in the PA counties they have studied "significant," and we are still early in the shale gas game.

    Habitat fragmentation - just one environmental impact - will persist long after the gas ceases to flow. A forest does not grow quickly - it takes 75 years to maturity - assuming the soils are decompacted and conditions are right. Site reclamation is hardly on the radar screen yet, or if it is, it needs to be talked about more. The industry should adopt DCNR's BMPs on forest site reclamation and show the world how it can leave as small a trace as possible.

    The challenge is for the shale gas era to avoid the mistakes of PA's past. I believe that we can, but it is not certain that we will.


  3. John,

    Great discussing with you as always.

    I agree that the geographic boundaries of the Marcellus are indeed vast, but a good portion of that may never be drilled. As more exploration is done, some areas of the shale are being discovered to be uneconomic. So while I realize that early on the game macro level general numbers are all we can really work with, those numbers are all going to be much higher that what we actually see. Also, increases in technology, longer laterals, etc. will all continue to make the industry more efficient when it comes to surface disturbance.

    That being said, I think there is much that can be done to minimize the impact if smart folks such as yourself, Mr. Hanger and people in the industry can open a dialogue and find ways to work together.



  4. Agreed, Mike.

    I understand that some areas may not be drilled, though what was uneconomic decades ago is now economic, thanks to technology. And we have a propensity to dig up every last hydrocarbon and burn it. Time will tell, but we should be proactive with better planning, now.

    Certainly technology itself is a huge factor. Increasing lateral lengths can significantly reduce landscape disturbance and needs to be encouraged. I've written and spoken about making the business case for sustainability - about purposefully driving tech improvements and efficiencies to reduce impacts, now. Progress is being made, but in my view not fast enough.

    Always looking for ways to move the ball.