Recent natural gas prices have hit all-time lows, because underground supplies have become more accessible through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
While that fuel burns relatively cleanly and is less expensive than other energy sources, gas extracted by fracking carries with it other costs that make this energy anything but cheap.
Fracking involves drilling into a rock formation and pumping in water and chemicals to fracture the rock and release trapped natural gas, which is then captured as it flows to the surface. In our region, the prime target is a huge formation known as Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York and Pennsylvania down to the southern reaches of West Virginia.
At risk are recreational opportunities and the integrity of national park land, state forests, and other public resources, including places like the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Allegheny National Forest, and federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers—national treasures recognized for their recreational and ecological value.
The effects of fracking on water quality are also of concern. The Environmental Protection Agency has been studying fracking’s impacts on groundwater quality, and findings are expected to be released for public comment later this year. Meanwhile, we are working to ensure that loopholes exempting fracking from clean air and clean water regulations are closed.
Most gas drilling in the Keystone State has occurred on private lands, but new technology such as horizontal drilling has made gas deposits more accessible and put public lands in the crosshairs of energy developers: 692,000 acres of Pennsylvania State Forest lands have been designated as available for drilling, and more than half of that acreage (385,400 acres) has already been leased. About 700 wells are in place on these public lands, with hundreds more anticipated in the years to come.
The infrastructure needed to support such operations—well pads, access roads, water impoundments, pipelines—is already impacting thousands of acres in central and western Pennsylvania, including state forests and such popular recreational destinations as the Mid-State Trail, Old Loggers Path, and Loyalsock Trail.
These are places we care about. Our Mid-Atlantic conservation policy team has launched a Marcellus Shale’s Greatest Treasures project to raise awareness of the impacts of fracking on natural resources, and is working with the National Parks Conservation Association to raise awareness of the issues with members of Congress.
We must balance our thirst for cheap energy against the environmental costs of fracking and the enormous value of healthy, intact, accessible public lands—especially when energy exploration and fuel extraction threaten public resources. Fracking also is not a long-term solution to our energy needs. Energy conservation and efficiency, along with renewable resources such as solar and appropriately-sited wind generation, need to be pursued with equal vigor as we seek not simply to meet but to reduce the energy needs of our region and our nation.
CALL TO ACTION
John D. Judge