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Monday, October 28, 2013

Healing (some of) the scars of unconventional oil and gas development

The Wall Street Journal has found that at least 15.3 million Americans - more people than live in Michigan or New York City - live within a mile of an oil or gas well that has been drilled since 2000.  And a million more wells could be drilled in oil and gas producing states in the coming decades.  Hydraulic fracturing is changing our national landscape.

This wave of development has many implications for communities, economies, quality of life, public health, and more.  I want to focus here on the impact on Penn’s Woods – the forests that cover almost 60% of our state.  

I’ve written frequently about the prospect of seven more decades of oil and gas exploration in Pennsylvania and the cumulative impacts that loom.  I’ve also reported on early analyses of the landscape impacts of that development, on the need for smart planning by gas producers and pipeline companies, and the economic benefits that could accrue to smart companies from minimizing their environmental footprint.

But compelling photo essays like this one from the Loyalsock State Forest posted by FracTracker.org convey the reality of what Penn’s Woods is up against in dealing with the new industrial activity of unconventional oil and gas development.  The production boom continues, as does the scarring of the forested landscape.

Photo by Pete Stern; Source: TracTracker.org

But it’s not the whole story – at least, not the end of it.

The photos of industrial sites gouged out of forests depict a jarring – and to some extent temporary – reality.  Time will heal some of the wounds of gas drilling.  But there are important questions that need to be asked about those scars. How long does it take to complete a well and put it into production?  When do the drill rigs that spoil scenic vistas disappear? When will the impoundments be filled in? And then what happens? Will the well be re-fracked during its lifetime, and if so, when and how often? How will the well site be reclaimed, and to what extent?

In other words, how long will the heart-rending scars remain fresh?  When do they begin to heal? And what medicine will be applied to help them to heal?

Obviously, the first rule of site restoration is to minimize disturbance in the first place.  That’s where smart planning comes in.  After that, it all depends on the rules that companies must abide by.

In Pennsylvania, companies must restore the land disturbed in siting, drilling, completing and producing oil and gas wells within nine months after completion of drilling the well.  That includes restoring the well site, removing or filling pits, and removing drilling supplies and equipment not needed for gas production (unless the landowner agrees otherwise).   Companies can request an extension of up to two years to complete restoration for a variety of reasons.

State law defines restoration as “returning the portions of the site not occupied by production facilities or equipment to approximate original contours and making them capable of supporting the uses that existed prior to drilling the well.”

Is that definition good enough to protect Penn’s Woods?

A 2010 report, Visual Impacts of Natural Gas Drilling in the Marcellus Shale Region, by Cornell University’s Department of City and Regional Planning, presents this as an example of a restored well site in a forested area.

Source: Cornell University Dept. of City and Regional Planning

Is this typical?  What does well site restoration really look like?  Were soils de-compacted, allowing trees to take root and grow?  Was imported material used to build a flat pad removed?  What was planted to reclaim the site, and what does it look like now?  More ‘‘before-and-after” photos of reclaimed sites where horizontal drilling took place are needed to get an accurate assessment of how the industry is doing.  Indeed, if it’s being done right, it’s in the industry’s interests to present this information.  But a fundamental question remains.  To heal the scars of drilling – and to earn the industry’s social license to operate – what is really necessary?

While I was Secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, I ordered the development of best management practices for oil and gas development on state forest land.  DCNR brought together relevant stakeholders – lessees, environmental groups, public recreation advocates, academics, and more – for their input.  The process was completed and an initial version of the BMPs was published several months after I left office.

The resulting Guidelines for Administering Oil and Gas Activity on State Forest Lands are among the best in the nation – a tribute to the women and men of the agency. They encourage site-specific, ecologically-based restoration.  Indeed, they note that a site may be best suited to revert back to what it was originally, to fill a lacking habitat/species niche, to provide additional food sources for wildlife, or to enhance special habitats. 

Governor Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission endorsed this work, saying that “DCNR has developed a set of best management practices for use on state forestland that are also applicable for private lands.”  I think they’re not only applicable – they’re essential if Penn’s Woods are to survive as we know them. 

What's also essential, unfortunately, is time.

Even the best-restored site will look like a former drill site for a long time.  Trees planted to replace those cut down when the site was cleared will need about 75 years to grow to maturity.  A producing well will always be marked by its “Christmas tree,” tanks to hold produced water, and fencing.  Gathering lines, pipelines, access roads and compressor stations will remain as long as there’s gas to pump. Time will not heal all the wounds of oil and gas development.  But it can heal some – depending on what’s required now.

The industry’s license to operate - and the Pennsylvania we leave to future generations from this latest wave of resource extraction - depend on how the land that is producing this bounty is restored.  It's in the best interests of both to set the bar high.

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