PITTSBURGH – A small portion of Pennsylvania state forest land was impacted by shale gas drilling, but many questions remain about how to manage the politically sensitive issue that is opposed by many residents, according to a new report.
The 268-page Department of Conservation and Natural Resources report issued this week concluded that “shale-gas production on state forest lands is neither benign nor catastrophic” and that there are clearly impacts and trade-offs.
“The question is what trade-offs are acceptable,” the report said.
The report found that about 1,486 acres of forest have been converted to various types of drilling-related development since 2008, including roads, well pads and pipelines, out of about 2.2 million acres in the state forest system. That gas development resulted in 191 infrastructure pads and 104 miles of pipelines.
One group that represents fishermen welcomed the acknowledgement by state officials that drilling in the forests has impacts but said far more details are needed.
“It is critical that we review the impacts found in the monitoring report and determine what level of impact is acceptable,” said Katy Dunlap, a water project director with Trout Unlimited. “The acceptable level should be determined, at least in part, by the people who use the forests.”
“We do not support additional leasing on state forest lands” that causes surface disturbance “but honestly the devil is in the details,” Dunlap said. “Are we going to lose recreational opportunities?”
Cindy Dunn, president of the environmental group PennFuture, welcomed the report but said it “raises more questions than it answers.”
Dunn asked the state to say when it will release the raw data it collected and questioned how many additional forest acres have been indirectly impacted by drilling.
“We remain unequivocally opposed to additional leasing of our state parks and forests for natural gas drilling,” Dunn said.
The report found that the gas-rich Marcellus Shale lies under about 673,000 acres of state forest that could be leased for drilling, but that only about 2 percent of typical lease acreage takes place on the surface. The rest of the activity consists of well bores that are about a mile underground.
The report said that drilling development tends to encourage invasive plants or pests and that visitors may see remote, wilderness-type experiences turn into ones that are less primitive. The report said water quality is the top concern for most people, and that while pollution has occurred, “monitoring data shows that water quality has not been affected.”
DCNR Secretary Ellen Ferretti said in a statement that gas drilling in state forests “is being carefully managed” and that guidelines “will continually be updated.”
A January poll by Franklin & Marshall College found that half of Pennsylvania residents were strongly opposed to more drilling in state forests, about one in six was somewhat opposed.