How Pennsylvania’s Energy infrastructure Will Affect Hunters, Fishers, Trout, Birds

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

To get an idea of the challenge ahead in figuring the right mix of energy sources to fuel a prosperous economy, check out a game developed by Princeton University. “The Wedges game” helps explain how a combination of strategies (from efficiency to saving forests) is needed – in addition to adopting an array of alternative energy sources – to successfully kick our fossil-fuel habits.

In Pennsylvania, The Nature Conservancy is taking a proactive approach to envision how this alternative-energy future might affect our bread-and-butter issue: conservation.

The Pennsylvania chapter completed a study that examines how future energy development may spread across the state’s landscape over the next 20 years and what might be done to avoid or reduce some of the effects on nature from this expansion.

“Pennsylvania is at the epicenter of a lot of this change that is happening in how energy is sourced and used,” says Nels Johnson, study author and Conservancy deputy state director. “One of the things that rarely gets looked at is all the habitat impacts” of new energy or, in other words, the potential disturbance to forests, freshwater, and areas that host rare wildlife.

With new technology, energy companies are now able to extract natural gas from Marcellus shale, a layer of black rock that runs beneath Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and New York. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania now has about 1,000 shale well sites or pads — each carving up close to 30 acres of forest between roads, pipelines, and infrastructure — but more than 60,000 wells (on 6,000 to 15,000 pads depending on density) could be dispersed over fields and forests by 2030.

The Conservancy study first mapped existing energy infrastructure in Pennsylvania and then looked at the potential for new forms of development such as natural-gas drilling, wind turbines, wood-biomass plants and transmission lines.

Overlaying maps of Pennsylvania’s large remaining forests (important for conservation) with potential patterns of energy development paints a picture of the cumulative effect of future infrastructure on the state’s landscape and wildlife.

Birds such as the scarlet tanager and black-throated blue warbler require large tracts of deep forest for nesting. The ranges of both are likely to be affected by energy development, but the warbler’s territory intersects most directly with the future energy footprint.

Other findings of the Pennsylvania Energy Impacts Assessment include:

  • With only 10 percent of public lands legally protected from gas development, an estimated 900 to 2,200 well pads could be developed in state forests, state parks, and game lands used by hunters and fishermen.
  • Nearly 80 percent of the best remaining watersheds for native eastern brook trout could see dozens of wind turbines and a total of at least 300 to 700 well pads.
  • With 500 current wind turbines in Pennsylvania, anywhere from 750 to 2,900 new turbines could sprout from ridge tops and plateaus by 2030, potentially overlapping with homes of long-eared Myotis bats, Allegheny wood rats and timber rattlesnakes.
  • All known Pennsylvania populations of the green salamander, and three-fourths of its snow trillium populations lie in the likely path of shale gas development.
  • About a third of the state’s largest forest patches could see at least one, and as many as 17, natural gas well pads.

With development of new energy sources comes opportunity for jobs, rural economic development, lower carbon emissions, and energy independence. But Johnson believes the risks and tradeoffs must also be weighed.

The Conservancy is reaching out to gas companies to explore working together to minimize the effects of more wells. The hope is to protect some areas important for nature, for example, by locating wells at the outer edges of forest blocks and planning to avoid harm when possible.

Lisa Hayden is climate change writer at The Nature Conservancy.

Photo by: Flickr user kenschneiderusa’s (A black-throated blue warbler, which breeds in Pennsylvania and Northeast forests, migrates to the Caribbean to spend the winter). Used under a Creative Commons license.

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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