Gas Exploration Landscape Disturbance in Bradford and Washington Counties Mapped in Federal Report

Sep 6, 2012

The natural gas boom in Pennsylvania is unlocking energy, but it’s also changing the landscape. A study released by the U.S. Geological Survey documented changes in land usage between 2004 and 2010. Bradford and Washington Counties were chosen for the first report, because they were identified as “exceptionally productive” areas of Marcellus Shale Development. The USGS report finds 642 sites in Bradford County and 949 in Washington County.

“Bradford County had 74 kilometers (45 miles) of additional roads and 178 kilometers (110 miles) of pipelines, and Washington County had 277 kilometers (172 miles) of roads and 216 kilometers (134 miles) of pipelines,” said USGS Research Geographer Terry Slonecker.

The director of the USGS said the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas and coalbed methane in the two counties is modifying the landscape at an unprecedented rate compared with other forms of energy. Slonecker said this isn’t meant as a criticism of natural gas development, but rather it should be seen as a baseline for future studies on energy exploration.

“Without taking any particular policy stand, as an ecologist, when you look at a forest that’s been sliced and diced into a hundred different fragments, you know inherently that’s going to create some kind of change to certain plant and animal species,” said Slonecker.

The data will be used to assess the effects of land changes on wildlife, water quality, invasive species, and socioeconomic impacts, among other things.

For the report, researchers used geospatial data and high resolution aerial imagery from 2004-2010, and documented patterns of disturbance, or areas where land has been turned over or altered in some way, paying particular attention to patterns related to well pads, roads and pipeline construction.

A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition said while land use may be expanding, technology is better today than it was for other forms of energy development, “Operators are using more centralized freshwater impoundments and drilling longer laterals from their well sites which means the earth disturbance footprint of Marcellus Shale natural gas wells is smaller today than ever before. It’s important to note that well sites and pipeline right of ways are temporary construction projects on mostly private land that will be reclaimed after work is complete. The MSC always welcomes original and fact-based research, but it’s equally important to present that research in the proper context.”

This is the first such report looking at natural gas land changes. Slonecker said four other government reports are currently in production featuring examinations of Tioga, Greene, Allegheny, and Susquehanna Counties. Eventually, he said the USGS will look at every area of the state that has natural gas development activity.