There are more than 2,000 active oil and gas wells on Pennsylvania game lands – some inherited, some imposed, some built with the wildlife agency’s consent.
There are no wind turbines, and not for lack of trying.
Developers have proposed to harness wind energy from the ridges of 19 state game lands since 2005. Every time, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has found the proposed development too destructive to habitat and too disruptive to wildlife and hunters.
On Tuesday, the agency’s six commissioners voted to make their implied message blunter: Wind development is not allowed on any state game lands because it is incompatible with the commission’s obligations to protect wildlife and promote recreation. The moratorium was adopted unanimously.
The decision was applauded by bird and habitat conservation groups, but criticized by environmental organizations that promote renewable energy and by wind companies who see the move as misguided.
“It is unfortunate that the Pennsylvania Game Commission endorses logging and natural gas extraction on state lands, but has chosen not to allow wind energy,” said Bryan Garner, a spokesman for NextEra Energy Resources, which recently sought to lease 345 acres for a wind farm in Lackawanna County.
Last year, a quarter of the game commission’s revenue came from harvesting natural resources, including a “significant amount of natural gas,” PennFuture’s Robert Altenburg said.
“A case-specific determination might reasonably find that wind turbines aren’t appropriate at a particular location,” he said, but the environmental group disagrees with the blanket moratorium.
Because Pennsylvania’s windy ridges are often managed by the state’s public land agencies, their exclusion of wind turbines has contributed to the dearth of new wind farms, said Allison Rohrs, director of the Institute for Energy at Saint Francis University.
A December report from the institute found about 35 percent of the remaining developable wind acreage in Pennsylvania is off limits because it is on public lands controlled by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which does not have the legal authority to lease it, and the game commission, which forbids it.
Combined, the agencies’ windy acres could support 7,240 megawatts of wind energy capacity, or more than five times the capacity of all of the state’s current wind farms, the report found.
Wells and wind
The game commission said it recognizes the value of alternative energy resources.
“But we’ve got to put wildlife, wildlife habitat and certainly people first,” said Peter Sussenbach, the commission’s director of wildlife habitat management.
The agency is often compelled to allow oil and gas development because the state does not control all of the mineral rights, he said. Or it signs leases – as it did for a $2.15 million bonus payment this week – with companies that can tap the gas from wells drilled on surrounding private property without disturbing the surface of the game land.
According to the commission’s 2017 annual report, 79 well pads for shale gas drilling have been developed on state game lands since 2010. Thirty-two were on acres where the commission controls the oil and gas rights.
Mr. Sussenbach also said there is not much activity after the initial rush to develop a gas well. Foresters and biologists review well pad designs so they have the least amount of impact, and gas companies have been responsive to suggestions for habitat improvement.
“They are really wildlife friendly,” he said.
To overcome the commission’s concerns, a wind developer would have to show “that you are not destroying a habitat, a windmill is not going to cause an impact to birds and mammals, and that there is not going to be impacts – significant impacts, long term – to the recreational use of that area.”
Mr. Sussenbach said the case-by-case reviews were time-intensive for commission staff and unfair to wind developers, who thought they could negotiate to try to alleviate the commission’s concerns.
“I don’t know that you really can,” he said.
Commissioners have also cited the frequency of maintenance at wind farms, the relatively small energy output of a single turbine and aesthetic concerns.
“Across the southwest, we have tons of them,” Commissioner Tim Layton, of Somerset County, said during a work session in March. “And I hate looking across the mountain and looking at all those windmills.”
Differing standards for wind, gas
During her year-long study of energy development on Pennsylvania’s public lands, Ms. Rohrs found little evidence the game commission was using transparent data to consider wind proposals or had a current understanding of wind technology.
The game commission cites barotrauma, a pressure-related injury, as a major cause of bat death from wind farms, she said, but that theory has largely been discounted by biologists, who see collision with blades as the greater risk.
Researchers have found shutting down turbines during periods of low wind speeds significantly decreases the number of bats killed, and wind farms have widely adopted that practice, she said.
The commission also appears to have different standards for different forms of energy development.
The Institute for Energy report examined three wind proposals rejected between 2006 and 2011 for State Game Land 42 in Cambria, Somerset and Westmoreland counties, and an environmental analysis questionnaire for a 1990 oil and gas lease approved for the same game land.
The commission “cited 11 different potential negative impacts caused by wind energy development,” the report found. “But when asked to describe potential negative impacts related to the natural gas project, the questionnaire lists ‘none.’”
Conservation groups welcome the wind ban even as they acknowledge the commission’s energy development policies are not consistent.
“I know that fossil fuels are much more destructive,” said Laura Jackson, who has leadership roles with the Juniata Valley Audubon Society and Save Our Allegheny Ridges. Both organizations oppose wind development on forested ridges because they are uniquely valuable resources for clean water and migratory birds.
“I still think this is a very good step forward with the game commission recognizing that game lands really should not be developed for industrial purposes.”
A deal with Goldman Sachs
NextEra Energy Resources is still pursuing its 68-megawatt Waymart II wind project in northeastern Pennsylvania, just not on game lands.
As of a February investor presentation, the Florida-based company anticipated the wind farm will come online in 2019 or 2020.
The project earned headlines last June, when Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. announced it had signed a long-term power-purchase agreement with NextEra that would allow the project to be built. The agreement is meant to help the bank meet its global electricity demands with entirely renewable energy.
“The project was never dependent on state lands and will move forward on private lands,” Mr. Garner said.