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Number-Crunching the Footprint of a Gas Fracking Boom, Forest by Forest

Pennslyvania has a total of 4.5 million acres of public lands. Estimates show that as few as 500,000 of these are permanently protected from gas drilling

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Apr 26, 2011
Tower for horizontal drilling

Editor's Note: Some laud natural gas as cleaner burning, home-grown energy — a "bridge" fuel to a renewable future. But others fear the environmental costs of the industry's newest extraction technique — a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or fracking — are too high. SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Northeastern Pennsylvania in late March to find out how this quest for energy is affecting the landscape and the people who call it home. This is the third in a multi-part series. (Read parts one and two.)

MONTROSE, Pa.—Pennsylvanians know the promise of natural gas means it's too late to stuff the hydraulic fracturing genie back into the bottle.

But the exponential growth of drilling permits to extract the "fossil fuel of the future" from the dark depths of the Marcellus Shale understandably has them fretting about how this relatively new technology could jeopardize their beloved state parks, forests and game lands.

Why? They've studied the maps, figured the math and read the rules. When they added up state and federal holdings in the 28-million acre Keystone State, they discovered it has a total of 4.5 million acres of public lands. However, the Nature Conservancy estimates that as few as 500,000 of those publicly accessible acres are permanently protected from natural gas drilling.

Some environmental organizations are calling for residents to have a voice via a ballot referendum on whether hydraulic fracturing should be allowed on state forests, parks or game lands. But that vote likely won't come to fruition.

Fracking is already part of the landscape on the state's network of forests. And, companies and government officials are in the midst of exploring their options at iconic landmarks such as Ohiopyle State Park on the Youghiogheny River.

The Nature Conservancy predicts that somewhere between 900 and 2,200 well pads could sprout up on all state lands by the year 2030 — but others contend that number is way too low.

First, a look at the state forests. About 1.5 million acres of the 2.2 million acres in the system are situated atop the Marcellus Shale. Nearly 700,000 acres of state forests have already been leased and about 300,000 acres are legally off limits to future leases because Pennsylvania owns the mineral rights affiliated with the latter.

As of early March, 575 well locations have been approved on forest lands. Of those, 482 are permitted and 164 are drilled, according to state figures.

"It's difficult to say with any level of confidence what the number could be over the next few decades but I think it’s fair to say somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 wells," John Quigley, a former state environmental leader, told SolveClimate News in an interview. "Of course that number could change depending on the price of gas."

Quigley served as secretary of the from April 2009 until January when a new Republican administration took office. He is now an adviser to a former employer, . Known as PennFuture, it's a statewide public interest organization based in Harrisburg.

All of those wells, Quigley fears, could compromise the bulk of state forests that became the first in the nation to be certified as sustainably managed under standards laid out by the . Trying to balance gas drilling in forests classified as "green" could jeopardize 90,000 jobs in the state connected to the forest products industry, a full 10 percent of the Pennsylvania’s manufacturing workforce.

Exploratory Stage at State Parks

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