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PennFuture Facts :: brief, interesting looks at topical environmental issues PennFuture Facts :: brief, interesting looks at topical environmental issues

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Gas development and forest fragmentation being studied

In our last post, we suggested that you take note of a study being conducted by the National Energy Technology Laboratory on the migration of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. The preliminary results indicate that frack fluids in one of eight shale gas wells being monitored did not migrate near shallow groundwater aquifers used by Pennsylvanians for drinking water. This week, we note that there is another important study under way relating to a different kind of migration.

Lillie Langlois, a Ph.D. candidate in wildlife and fisheries science at my alma mater, Penn State, is studying the impact of shale gas development on our state forests and wildlife, including migratory neotropical birds.

Forest covers more than 60 percent of Pennsylvania - nearly 17 million acres. A ton of wildlife depends on these vast non-fragmented forests for breeding, including migratory neotropical birds that travel from Central and South America to breed in Pennsylvania, such as the Indigo Bunting.

As of 2012, the state Deptartment of Environmental Protection (DEP) has issued more than 8,000 shale gas permits across the state, with more than 6,000 wells having been drilled. The majority of wells being drilled in northern tier counties center on Tioga and Bradford counties, which are also home to some of the largest unbroken blocks of trees in Pennsylvania. Each well constitutes five acres or more of a stone pad with associated roads and pipelines that result in forest fragmentation, which has varying impacts on wildlife.

As private land becomes more intensely developed, our public lands - State Forests and Game Lands - become that much more important for Pennsylvania in order to maintain its wildlife heritage. Not only that, it is increasingly apparent that migratory birds play a critical role in both local and global economies as pollinators, health wardens, restorers, fertilizers and sport and tourist attractions.

Pennsylvania has no state equivalent of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that required the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to take a thorough and comprehensive look, in a public way, at the environmental consequences of opening up our public lands to gas development.

As with the chemical migration study, this is once again the type of research needed to inform public policy decisions about the impacts and risks of shale gas development in Pennsylvania.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Preliminary Results: Fracking Chemicals Did Not Reach Drinking Water Aquifers

Multiple news outlets are reporting that the Department of Energy released a statement indicating positive results from a year-long fracking study being conducted by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) at a well site in Washington County, Pennsylvania.

Researchers conducted seismic monitoring of eight horizontal Marcellus shale wells.  In one of those wells the researchers used unique markers to monitor the flow of chemicals from a frack job. The researchers were looking to see if the chemicals contaminated shallow groundwater or traveled to older gas wells 3000 feet above the Marcellus. After one year, the researchers found that the frack fluid stayed thousands of feet below shallower horizons that supply drinking water to many Pennsylvanians.  The chemicals also were not detected in the older gas wells being monitored. The only surprising result from the study was that the chemicals in one fracture traveled 1800 feet horizontally from the well, when most fractures traveled only a few hundred feet.

This is plainly good news for those that support shale gas development so long as it can be done in an environmentally protective manner - but caution on reading too much into the preliminary results is just as plainly warranted.  The study monitored a single well in a specific geologic setting, and researchers are in the early stages of collecting, analyzing and validating the data. NETL's own statement emphasizes that the "results are far too preliminary to make any firm claims."

More studies such as this are warranted in other geologic settings across Pennsylvania, and the results from those studies should be used to inform the public debate and policy decisions around shale gas development.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Fast Facts: Coal In the news from China to Pittsburgh

Free Coal, Shorter Life: A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents the disastrous results of China's policy of giving away free coal to residents of the Hua River area from 1950 to 1980. The pollution resulting from burning the coal contributed to shaving 5.5 years off of life expectancy there by increasing particulate matter in the air, which in turn led to increased heart and lung disease.

Divestiture: Kevin Begos reported this weekend for the AP that the United Church of Christ, a group of Protestant churches, had become the first U.S. religious body to vote to divest its pension funds and investments from fossil fuel companies because of climate change concerns. The Church of Christ claims 1.1 million members. The UCC General Synod 2013 also passed a resolution calling for an end to the devastating practice of mountain top mining.

Closure: First Energy Corp. announced that it will deactivate in October two coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania - Mitchell Power Station in Washington County, and Hatfield's Ferry Power Station in Greene County. First Energy blamed the need to internalize the real cost of generating electricity from coal rather than being allowed to continually emit mercury and toxic air pollutants into the environment, and the low cost of electricity in the marketplace. According to the EPA, power plants are  the dominant emitters of mercury (50 percent), acid gases (over 75 percent) and a variety of toxic metals (20-60 percent) in the United States.

Review: On June 24, the Supreme Court announced that it will review a lower Court's decision that threw out EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. EPA adopted the rule in July of 2011, requiring 28 eastern states including Pennsylvania to reduce power plant emissions that contribute to pollution from ozone and fine particulate matter in other states. The Clean Air Act requires EPA and states to address the interstate transportation of air pollution that affects the ability of states downwind from attaining compliance with National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Where there's water, there's a way

"To the waters and the wild..." uttered Yeats --- and, like me, maybe you did just that for the holiday, picnicking in the woods or out on a stream somewhere. We have 83,000 miles of waterways in Pennsylvania (second only to Alaska, for the trivia buffs) but they're continually under myriad threats from pollution every day. And 50 percent of the fresh water that meanders and then barrels into the vast Chesapeake Bay comes from the 444-mile Susquehanna River.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint helps assess Pennsylvania's water quality in its streams and rivers as part of the interconnected Bay system. The results so far are a mixed bag: kudos for the state's progress, but much more needs to be done.
Lackawanna River

Whether you're in Lititz Run in Lancaster County where wild trout are rebounding --- or paddling the Lackawanna River above Scranton --- we can see real improvements in the health of our rivers and streams. Every time I chat with people fishing or boating who marvel about a time not long ago "when you couldn't even walk on the riverbank, it was so polluted," it reinforces that the work does pay off.

But our water quality is still not where it should be. The Pennsylvania Milestones report this week shows that the state fell short on five of eight practices to meet pollution reduction targets. The Choose Clean Water Coalition (PennFuture is the lead partner in Pennsylvania and a Steering Committee member) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation analyzed progress in agricultural runoff, urban and suburban pollution sources, and wastewater treatment. One of the conclusions was that the state needs better data tracking and transparency so that Pennsylvania can meet its targets.

Congratulations are due all the citizens, watershed and angler groups and so many others, from Potter County to Pittston and in between, who make cleaner water happen.