Last Wednesday, the Washington D.C. city council passed a resolution opposing fracking in the George Washington National Forest, making the nation’s capitol the third major U.S. city, after Los Angeles and Dallas, to decry the hazards of shale drilling in recent days.
The D.C. council’s resolution called on the U.S. Forest Service to prohibit horizontal hydraulic fracturing in the forest’s headwaters of the Potomac River, the sole source of water for the nation’s capital, citing the risks of pollution and the costs of monitoring for contamination.
It is unclear whether the DC City Council vote will hold any sway in determining the actual fate of the forest. The decision whether to permit fracking there primarily rests with the U.S. Forest Service, which is currently updating its long-term management plan for the George Washington National Forest.
As the debate over shale drilling intensifies in the nation’s capitol and across the country, Pennsylvania offers useful lessons for how states have mishandled their forests. Pennsylvania has been ground zero for Marcellus shale development and roughly two thirds of Pennsylvania’s state forest land lies above the Marcellus shale, one of the largest shale plays in the U.S.
Cornell University Professor Anthony Ingraffea recently reviewed state data on environmental violations in Pennsylvania state forests, including the 100,000-acre Loyalsock forest in the north central part of the state, a popular tourist destination and the focus of a local controversy over fracking.
What Mr. Ingraffea found highlights the hazards of drilling and demonstrates how a powerful industry can overwhelm regulators’ capacity to protect against environmental harms.
State regulators, the data revealed, have been unable to adequately keep tabs on drilling on state lands.
Over 59 percent of the Marcellus wells already drilled in the Loyalsock had never been inspected, Prof. Ingraffea found, and over a quarter of wells on state lands had no inspection reports available to the public.
Of the wells that were inspected, at least six Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania’s state forest had begun leaking, including at least 2 of the 86 Marcellus wells in the Loyalsock. These leaks developed despite a long list of additional restrictions for drillers on state land, and promises from state officials to keep an especially sharp eye on drilling on public property.
In fact, across Pennsylvania, the data shows that Marcellus wells have been leaking at a disturbing rate. Up to 13 percent of shale wells drilled before 2009 have already developed leaks in their casings, the protective layer of cement and steel that is designed to isolate oil, gas, wastewater and chemicals from the surrounding rocks and aquifers, Mr. Ingraffea said in a December 12 TEDx talk.
Gas well casings are more likely to fail as a well gets older – cement begins to crack and crumble with old age. The oil and gas industry often blames problems in aging wells on outdated drilling and cementing technologies, arguing that new innovations make modern wells safer. But even newer wells have been failing at a striking rate in the Marcellus, Mr. Ingraffea said. “We’ve analyzed very modern well technology and found that the failure rates are about as bad as they’ve always been,” he told the crowd.
When gas well casings leak, not only can groundwater supplies be contaminated, but the natural gas itself leaks out to the atmosphere. This unburned natural gas is primarily made of methane – one of the most powerful greenhouse gasses, with a climate-changing impact 86 times that of carbon dioxide, or CO2, in the first decades after it leaks. So when gas wells leak, families nearby can lose their drinking water supplies and the impact on the climate can be significant.
With so many wells going uninspected, it’s difficult to pin down just how many Marcellus wells have developed leaks. State inspectors also do not always record the details of their findings, meaning that it’s possible the true leakage rate is even higher than public data would suggest.
Pennsylvania has repeatedly drawn national attention for its inability – and at times apparent reluctance – to police the drilling boom.
Dozens of past and contemporary state officials had ties to the oil and gas industry, a 2013 report by the Public Accountability Initiative on Pennsylvania’s “revolving door” between industry and state found, including 28 who left their jobs to go work for the industry they had policed.
Between 2000 and 2012, the oil and gas industry made over $8 million in campaign contribution to state-level politicians in Pennsylvania, a report by Common Cause PA and the Conversation Voters of PA found, and the industry spent an additional $15.7 million on lobbying at the state level between 2007 and 2012.
And a string of environmental regulators have been caught in embarrassing gaffes: in February, it was revealed that a senior official at the Department of Environmental Protection was investing in the oil and gas industry while he held office, a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources official publicly compared Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox to the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and the former head of the DEP, Michael Krancer, stepped down from office while under investigation by the state’s auditor general for how his office handled water contamination testing related to shale gas.
And all indications suggest that Pennsylvania officials plan to keep moving full speed ahead into the drilling boom, including where public lands are concerned.
Last month, Pennsylvania’s governor Tom Corbett announced plans to reverse a 2010 moratorium and raise $75 million by leasing state forest land for shale gas extraction, which the Philadelphia Inquirer calculated will require allowing drilling beneath 25,000 acres of public forests.
Although the Governor’s plan would not allow drillers so-called “surface rights,” or the right to use the surface of newly-leased land for drilling pads, drillers could fracture underneath the forests from well pads on nearby private land – and on state lands whose mineral rights were leased or sold before the moratorium was put in place.
Before the moratorium, Pennsylvania had already leased 385,400 acres to oil and gas companies, and the state does not own the mineral rights to another 290,000 acres eyed by drillers. Corbett’s new plan makes drilling in and near state forests all the more attractive to oil and gas companies by allowing them to bundle in acreage that is currently off-limits.
“The Loyalsock State Forest has become a truly wild and undisturbed part of Pennsylvania. For many, it is Pennsylvania’s 'Wild Alaska' – a place that deserves the best protection we can give it,” said Paul Zeph, Director of Conservation for Audubon PA, in reaction to Mr. Corbett's announcement. “The Governor should not be working in secrecy to get the most money for drilling in this critical habitat; but rather should be working publicly to get the most protection for it.”
But as drillers chip away at protections for Pennsylvania's last wilderness areas – which National Geographic calls home to “some 2,000 trout streams and one of the darkest night skies in the East” – the damage done is mounting. Just upstream from World's End State Park, a 2012 pipeline construction accident sullied Loyalsock Creek. Hiking planning guides now describe not only scenic vistas but also wilderness fracking: “This part of the tour also includes a pig launcher, used to clean the pipes; recently fracked well pads (part of your State Forest that is now off limits); another possible compressor pad site; a 14.8 million gallon reservoir for fracking water; large water pipes along the berm,” reads a Sierra Club tour site.
With pressure rising to drill on public lands nationwide, it's worth keeping a sharp eye on what's been happening in Pennsylvania and the ways that regulators have tried, and at times failed, to control the boom.
Photo Credit: Bridge on a trail through the forest at Codorus State Park, Pennsylvania, via Shutterstock.