The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is looking for someone to monitor, among other things, the “social implications” of Marcellus Shale drilling in state forests.
“An example would be is it better to locate the well pad right along an existing forest road to prevent further forest fragmentation,” DCNR spokeswoman Christina Novak said Thursday, “but increase it’s visibility to forest visitors.”
But although placing the pads closer to existing public forest roads reduces the amount of deforestation required for the drilling rigs, it also places them closer to public, recreational, users of the land.
The new position is part of a new monitoring group being established within DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry. It also will collect data on streams, wildlife, and flora in areas where drilling is taking place. Novak said stream monitoring so far has not revealed “anything that has been alarming,” but the additional data collection would provide a baseline against which future measurements can be compared.
“We think we’re in pretty good shape right now,” Novak said of the department’s monitoring efforts, but she also noted industry growth in state forest lands has been slower than initially planned.
Novak said the new position will be a “split position” – a single paying position with two titles: Ecological Program Specialist and a Natural Resource Specialist. The posting is listed as a civil service position, and is funded by the Bureau of Forestry.
In a time when money seems in short supply, DCNR was one agency that did not see its budget sharply cut, primarily because it receives much of its funding from leasing income and timber sales. The department is not required to turn that money in to the General Fund.
Leasing and timber sales includes a significant amount from the Marcellus industry. According to the Bureau of Forestry, about 58 percent of the state – about 16.6 million acres – is forest land. About 700,000 acres of a total 2.2 million acres of state forest land is potentially available for Marcellus drilling.
“This includes land where we own the subsurface rights and we have gone through a lease process, and also lands (about 220,000 acres) where we do NOT own the subsurface rights and legal precedent has determined we have to provide access to the owners,” she said in an earlier email.
Those acres are providing money for the forestry bureau’s new Marcellus monitoring group. For instance, Marcellus pays DCNR “double stumpage” – twice the market value of the forest it must remove to make way for drilling pads and connecting pipelines.
“But then they own it,” Novak noted of the harvested timber.
The new monitoring group seems like a good thing, if not a little slow coming. Marcellus drilling has been underway several years, though only seriously the past two, with more than 3,000 wells established statewide. So far, that baseline – a collection showing what chemicals are already in the water supply, and what animals and plants live in the areas before drilling began – is notably missing. The result is drillers and residents arguing over who is to blame when gasses show up in drinking water supplies. In at least two cases, drilling companies have been fined and ordered to provide water to residents in the area of drilling accidents.
The so-called social implications also involve hunters, and soon snowmobilers, who enter the woods, maybe for the first time since last year, and discover reinforced roads and five-to-ten-acre well pad clearings where they last saw trees and favorite hunting places.
“We have seen some tensions,” Novak said, adding “usually related to when the drilling rig is there.”
Each well pad can mean up to 10 acres of cleared forest, although most of the clearing is to be reclaimed when the drilling rig is removed. Novak said the department has tried to use existing roads where possible, even widening them to allow collector pipelines to be placed alongside the roads rather than cut through virgin forest. That is not always possible.
When new cuts are made in the forest for pipeline construction, space becomes available for additional snowmobile paths beside the pipelines. Clearings may displace some wildlife species, but reclaimed land and new growth may entice others.
Arguably the most important monitoring target will be the many streams and rivers that flow through the state’s forest land. That water eventually becomes drinking water, often for populations far from the drilling. Chemicals are used under high pressure to release natural gas from the shale; the released gas pushes the chemical-laden water back out of the well, to be collected and treated or reused.
Sportsmen’s groups statewide are combining efforts to push water monitoring. They say some streams already have been adversely affected. With luck and diligence, maybe the new, and overdue, Bureau of Forestry monitoring group will disprove the alleged harm – or identify it soon enough that stopping it does not become an impossible task.
Photo by Tom Owad
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