Nature Conservancy study reveals energy development impacts
Mon, Dec 13 2010 at 4:08 PM
By The Nature Conservancy
HARRISBURG, PA — Nov. 15, 2010 — Energy development in Pennsylvania over the next 20 years could transform the Commonwealth’s iconic forests and impact several hundred thousand acres of key habitat for songbirds, salamanders and trout, according to a new study released today by The Nature Conservancy which focuses on the likely impacts of energy development on the state’s most ecologically important areas.
“We can no longer protect nature without thinking about energy development,” said Nels Johnson, deputy director for The Nature Conservancy’s Pennsylvania Chapter and lead author of the energy analysis. With the report released recently, energy developers, government agencies and conservation groups will now have information about where development is most likely to pose risks to Pennsylvania’s most important natural areas — and be able to take steps to avoid them.
About 3,500 acres of forest have been cleared and an estimated 8,500 additional acres of habitat degraded because of the energy development that has spread through Pennsylvania’s forests in recent years, according to a Conservancy analysis of aerial photographs. Without action to improve planning for energy development, many times that amount could be lost, Johnson said.
“If energy companies, regulators and the conservation community don’t take this information into account, some of the special places that we’re working so hard to protect may not long exist,” Johnson said. “Pennsylvanians have the tools to make a difference, but if we don’t act soon, there are going to be serious conflicts between energy and habitat conservation, and conservation is likely to lose.”
The study considers the types of energy development most likely to alter Pennsylvania’s landscape — natural gas from the Marcellus shale formation, wind energy, energy from wood biomass and electric and gas transmission — and uses innovative GIS mapping techniques to analyze the impacts of existing development and to model the likely location and intensity of future development. The report then documents the possible impacts on areas of high conservation value.
The Conservancy released findings focused on Marcellus gas and wind energy:
- About 1,800 Marcellus natural gas wells have already been drilled in Pennsylvania, and as many as 60,000 more could be developed by 2030 if development trends continue.
- By the end of this year, 500 wind turbines will be generating energy on Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Front and Appalachian ridges, and between 750 and 2,900 more could be built by 2030, depending on the state’s renewable energy goals.
In early 2011, The Nature Conservancy will release additional findings focused on wood biomass and electric and gas transmission, but already, the cumulative impacts of new energy development in Pennsylvania are alarmingly clear:
- Because of the scale of Marcellus development, about 40 percent of the state’s largest and most ecologically valuable forest areas in Pennsylvania could see serious impacts from energy development.
- These impacts could include degradation of Pennsylvania breeding habitat for vulnerable species such as northern goshawk, wood thrush and Northern flying squirrel, as well as development within most of the watersheds of the state’s remaining healthy brook trout streams.
- Wind energy development will not have the extensive footprint associated with the Marcellus fields, but in certain local situations, wind development may impact critical habitats.
For every acre of development in Pennsylvania’s forests, several additional acres of habitat for plants and animals are lost to the noise, light, invasive species and other ecological changes that can accompany remote developments. Forests can be fragmented by roads, gas well pads and turbines, creating more of the forest edges where these impacts occur.
That potential risk to habitat led Audubon Pennsylvania to provide data and staff time to help The Nature Conservancy produce this report, said Audubon Executive Director Phil Wallis.
“Pennsylvania’s deep forests provide breeding habitat for many songbirds that depend upon the health of Penn’s Woods, including the scarlet tanager, wood thrush and black-throated blue warbler,” Wallis said. “This analysis gives us a glimpse of how substantial the loss of our forests may be as a result of new energy development activities. We need to actively work to maintain the resilience and health of our wild forests at the same time that we find new energy solutions for our nation.”
The state’s multi-million-dollar outdoor recreation and timber industries are also dependent on the health of these forests, while impacts to headwater streams as a result of development could extend many miles downstream. Healthy forests provide invaluable protection for drinking water and keep our rivers safe for fishing, boating and swimming.
“Every type of energy development has an impact on the land,” said Bill Kunze, Executive Director for The Nature Conservancy’s Pennsylvania Chapter. “But with the new data about cumulative impacts on nature that this analysis provides, energy companies will be able to minimize impacts to important habitats as energy development advances.”
In the coming months, Nature Conservancy staff members will be sharing their findings with industry leaders, policymakers, community organizations, and landowners with the intent of collaborating to green Pennsylvania’s energy future.
“It’s not too late,” Kunze said. “But we have to act now.”
MNN is working with The Nature Conservancy to bring you state-by-state environmental information.