The push to develop cleaner energy sources such as natural gas and wind power could wreak havoc on hundreds of thousands of acres of Pennsylvania forests and disrupt critical natural habitats, according to a study released Monday by the Nature Conservancy.
With the prospect of up to 60,000 more natural gas wells drilled across the western, central and northern parts of the state along with nearly 3,000 new wind turbines over the next 20 years, Pennsylvania’s natural environment will suffer unless developers look for ways to minimize the impact of new energy facilities, it says.
“The cumulative impacts could be enormous,” said Bill Kunze, executive director of the conservancy’s Pennsylvania chapter. “The window to do things right … won’t be open very long.”
Development could threaten the state’s forests as well as birds such as the black-throated blue warbler and even the brook trout, the report said.
Kunze and Nels Johnson, the report’s primary author, said Monday in a conference call with reporters that energy developers do have to consider the environmental impact of their facilities when they apply for permits to build them. However, those permits don’t look at all of the impacts cumulatively, they said. The applications tend to focus on meeting legal standards, Johnson said, noting that the impacts may not violate Clean Air and Clean Water laws, but they still may have considerable negative consequences.
The impact of development goes beyond the actual site of the well or wind turbine, the report said. Every acre built can mean the loss of additional acreage for animal and plant life that need “deep forest” to survive, Johnson said.
Energy developers could do a number of things to lessen the impact of development, they said. For instance, they could put natural gas well pads in areas that are already cleared of forests and away from sensitive animal habitats, or share access roads, they said. At a minimum, the facilities could be built on the edge of forested lands, the report said.
By using horizontal drilling, natural gas developers have less impact than conventional drillers, said Kathryn Klaber, executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a drilling industry advocacy group. She said Pennsylvania should enact a law, as in other states, that allows a gas company to drill underneath land owned by someone who does not have a drilling lease.
In addition, drillers have to adhere to a natural diversity inventory before deciding where to put a gas pad, Klaber said. “It’s an inherent part of the regulations we have to comply with,” she said.
The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit group based in Arlington, Va., developed energy projections to flesh out its report, using development patterns and a state law that encourages development of alternative fuels. A later report will consider the impact of increased wood biomass development and the expansion of energy transmission lines.
To a large extent, the direct impacts of natural gas drilling and wind power development could bypass the Lehigh Valley. The massive Marcellus shale formation, which lies about a mile underneath West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York and holds one of the world’s largest stores of natural gas, skirts southeastern Pennsylvania and the valley. Projections also show the likeliest development of wind turbines along Appalachian ridges to the north and west of the Lehigh Valley.
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