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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.  MarcellusGas.org 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.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Climate disruption will cause accelerating ecosystem destruction

A new study from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) ominously finds that as the planet warms, Earth’s climate zones – such as the equatorial monsoonal zone, the polar tundra zone, and cold arid desert zone – not only keep shifting, but they will shift at an accelerating pace. 

Pace of shifts in climate regions increases with global temperature, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, finds that for an initial two degrees Celsius of warming, about 5 percent of Earth’s land area shifts to a new climate zone.  But the pace of change quickens for the next two degrees of warming - an additional, staggerring 10 percent of the land area shifts to a new climate zone. 

The paper says that certain regions, such as northern middle and high latitudes, will undergo more changes than other regions like the tropics. The coldest climate zones of the planet are decreasing; dry regions are increasing; and a large fraction of land area is changing from cool summers to hot summers. 

The effect of these shifts will be that the species inhabiting each zone will have little time to adapt to climatic change, leading to massive ecosystem upheaval.  The results echo another recent study that finds that half of all plants and a third of all animal species are at risk of dramatic declines due to climate disruption.

The world is on track for 6 degrees Celsius – 11 degrees  Fahrenheit – of warming by 2100. The impacts - in the lifetimes of our grandchildren - will simply be unimaginable. Will we allow it to happen?