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Natural Gas Drilling Fells 1,000 Trees in W. Va. Forest, Scientists Say

In one of the first studies to observe the full course of drilling, scientists found that a well and a pipeline killed trees but did not affect groundwater

By Nicholas Kusnetz,

Feb 6, 2011

A by the U.S. Forest Service offers one of the most detailed accounts yet of how natural gas drilling can affect a forest โ€” in this case the , deep in the mountains of West Virginia.

The report traces the construction and drilling of a single well and an accompanying pipeline on a sliver of the 4,700-acre forest that federal scientists have been studying for nearly 80 years. It found that the project felled or killed about 1,000 trees, damaged roads, eroded the land and โ€” perhaps most important โ€” permanently removed a small slice of the forest from future scientific research.

The report said the drilling didn't appear to have a substantial effect on groundwater quality. The scientists did not monitor the forest's most sensitive ecosystems, including extensive caves, and did not evaluate the operation's impact on wildlife. The authors also did not test for any of the chemicals added to drilling and hydraulic fracturing fluids.

The report, and the well in question, hints at a larger story of the tensions that have emerged as drilling expands across federal lands in the eastern United States.

The B800 well, as it's called, within the Forest Service when it was planned and approved in 2007. In obtained by the group , or PEER, three Forest Service scientists criticized the decision to approve the well, saying it threatened endangered bats and the interconnected caves where they live.

The scientists also said the well threatened the long-term research performed in the forest. The employees requested a legal opinion on the matter, but were by their superiors.

Results 'Very Pertinent' to Forest Drilling Boom

The report, whose authors include the three scientists who criticized the decision, notes that some of the scientists' worst fears, including that turbid water would fill the area's caves, did not occur. Instead, the greatest impacts of drilling were unexpected.

A planned release of wastewater killed scores of trees, and drilling trucks proved much more damaging to the roads than normal logging traffic.

Tom Schuler, a forest researcher who signed the letter and worked on the new report, said it is one of the first published studies to observe the entire course of drilling and preparing a well for production.

"It really opened up this new area that's very pertinent to what's going on in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and the whole northeast United States," he said. "It opened up the sort of first chapter to that."

The need for that research is great, Schuler said. Drilling in Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest, which hosts thousands of wells, has  . In 2009 there were 73 active gas wells in the Monongahela National Forest, which contains the Fernow research area. A 2006 said 75 percent of the total area of the forest may sit above a gas reservoir.

There have been other controversial leases in the Monongahela National Forest as well. Last year, the Bureau of Land Management to lease land for gas development after environmental groups said drilling would threaten endangered bats, as well as local fisheries and water supplies.

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