Drilling in Pa. forests 'carefully managed'

Agency's report says no overall effect

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania's state forests has been "neither benign nor catastrophic," according to an extensive monitoring report to be released today by the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The 265-page report is the first in an ongoing effort to track the impact of gas development on public forests. It represents researchers' observations through 2012. 

"Monitoring does not necessarily give you answers -- it gives you data to be used for decision-making," DCNR Secretary Ellen Ferretti said. She called the report's breadth and depth evidence that "shale gas production on state forests is being carefully managed."

The monitoring program was initiated in late 2010 and has been measuring effects on 15 subjects, among them wildlife, water, invasive species, recreation, revenue and forest health. The research has revealed impacts to a variety of forest uses and helped inform DCNR's attempts to balance them.

"There are clearly impacts and tradeoffs associated with this activity," the report says. "The question is what tradeoffs are acceptable."

Among the report's key findings:

* Incidents, including spills of diesel fuel and brine, have occurred in state forests, but water test results from field samples and continuous monitors have not identified any significant impacts from shale gas development.

* Nearly 1,500 acres of forest had been converted for well pads and infrastructure through 2012 -- including some areas of once-contiguous forest that have been fragmented by new development -- but the disturbance is less than the agency originally expected because facilities were purposefully built close to developed areas.

* Invasive species are a concern because new development makes new areas vulnerable to their spread. Researchers looked at 18 representative well pads in the forests and found 11 invasive plant species at 14 of them.

* There are fewer opportunities for remote recreational experiences in forests with gas development and more opportunities for "semi-primitive" experiences. More miles of snowmobile trails have been created but three designated state forest hiking trails have been affected by gas development.

* Initial measurements at six out of the seven compressor stations on state forest lands were louder than the level suggested by state guidelines.

* About 15 percent of all shale gas produced in Pennsylvania comes from state forests. Leases and royalties on oil and gas activity in state forests during the shale era provided the state with $582 million in revenue through 2012.

The report's authors caution that more time and study will reveal trends that are not yet fully apparent, especially in terms of wildlife, timber harvests and overall forest health.

The monitoring program has already helped DCNR adjust policies and develop new ones.

Truck traffic through state forests was identified as an early obvious problem and the agency changed its policy to get companies to pipe water to well sites for hydraulic fracturing rather than hauling it there in trucks.

"We made a big shift from trucking water to piping water to locations," said Dan Devlin, acting deputy secretary for Parks and Forestry.

The pipelines are generally buried parallel to roads, creating shoulders that snowmobilers now use as trails.

The monitoring program also revealed that DCNR's invasive species controls needed to be improved. The agency has since developed guidelines that are going to be "much more proscriptive in terms of how we're going to deal with invasives," Mr. Devlin said.

There are approximately 700,000 acres available for gas development in the state's 2.2-million acre public forest system, either through DCNR-issued leases or in areas where the subsurface rights are privately owned.

DCNR expects that roughly 3,000 gas wells may be drilled in state forests to develop the acreage the state has currently leased for drilling, according to the monitoring report. About 570 wells had been drilled on that acreage by the end of 2013.

Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed to raise $75 million for the 2014-15 budget by leasing additional gas rights below public lands that can be accessed from parcels already under development or from private land nearby.

DCNR is gathering feedback on the monitoring report from its advisory committees and the public. It will hold an online public seminar Monday at 1:30 p.m. It also will collect observations about the report through a survey on its website.

Laura Legere: llegere@post-gazette.com.

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