Pennsylvania's state forests are being rapidly industrialized by a multiplication of natural gas wells. While there are about 150 gas wells in state forests today, that number is expected to jump to more than 10,000 wells over the next two decades as more drilling companies exploit a regional rock formation called the Marcellus shale, according to state figures.
To get a feel for the human and environmental consequences of this, I took a trip out to one of these state forests -- Moshannon State Forest in Clearfield County, located about three hours northwest of Harrisburg, Pa. I toured the forest with a local farmer named Jenny Lisak. Above is a picture of Jenny's family hiking through the state forest four years ago, before the drilling started.
Jenny fell in love with the forest when she was a kid. She would go walking, picnicking and bird watching there with her dad. Later, she brought her own children to the woods to wade into cool streams and hunt for salamanders. But when Jenny returned on a recent afternoon, the forest didn't look the same. When she walked into what had been a stand of oaks and elms, she saw that about five acres of the forest had been clear cut. A natural gas drilling rig (above) was surrounded by a gravel parking lot with a small city of industry -- workers in hard hats, bulldozers, dump trucks, racks of pipes and mobile office buildings.
A traffic jam of trucks, carrying sand and water for the hydraulic fracturing process, rumbled down roads that had been widened for the drilling. The snow on the sides of the roads was not white, as Jenny remembered it when she would cross-country ski here. It was black and crusty, as you might find in New York City. As she examined one of the drilling rigs from one of the roads, an employee of Enron Oil & Gas (EOG) pulled up in a pickup truck and told her and me to get out.
"But this is a public road on state property," I protested. "This is public property."
"This isn't," the EOG employee insisted (incorrectly). He then called a private security guard, who pulled up in the SUV pictured at right.
Jenny Lisak shook her head, and we climbed into her car and drove away.
“It’s been just an incredible change in this state forest," Jenny said. "People don’t like you to be here, obviously, and it is sort of intimidating."
"There is industrial activity all around, huge roads, constant traffic," Jenny Lisak said. "I used to come out here with my father, and we'd hear hermit thrushes and the wood thrushes trilling. But you don’t hear any birds anymore.”
On the way out, we drove past this gate, leading to a hunting club surrounded by state forest land. It was here, on June 3, that an EOG gas well suffered a major blowout. The "potentially catastrophic failure" of the well equipment sent 35,000 gallons of drilling wastewater spewing into the sky and over the ground for 16 hours, polluting a tributary of Little Laurel Run, which had a high quality fishery, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The environmental violations during the blowout were among 22 across the state last year caused by EOG drilling, according to the state agency.
Quigley predicted that conflicts like this, between people who want to use state forests for recreation, and the companies that lease state forests for drilling, could rise in the future as more and more wells are drilled on public lands.
He also added that some pollution and fragmentation of forest habitats is almost inevitable when thousands of gas wells and their accompanying roads and pipelines are built in state forests.
"Anything that can go wrong has gone wrong, because of the numbers (of wells) involved," Quigley said. "We've had surface spills of fracking fluids...we've had diesel fuel spills. We've seen diesel trucks overturn and flip and spill their contents, and sometimes that contamination reaches a stream."
Since the 1950s, Pennsylvania has allowed some gas wells in state forests. But Quigley said the state’s careful and conservation-focused approach to leasing state forest land changed because of a scramble to balance the budget during the recession.
Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2010 leased out 130,000 acres of its state forests to drilling companies to raise $383 million, Quigley said. Overall, about a third of Pennsylvania’s state forests are now under lease to drilling companies. Traditionally, money raised by leasing out state forests went back into conservation. But in this case, Pennsylvania used the money for its general fund.
Quigley predicted the drilling of about 12,000 more natural gas wells in Pennsylvania's state forests over the next decade or two. A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Christina Novak, put the estimate at about 1,000 well pads, each with six to 10 wells (making up to 10,000 wells.)
Quigley noted that natural gas has some environmental benefits, such as releasing less air pollution and mercury than the burning of coal. But he said that the cumulative impact of all the drilling predicted across Pennsylvania could be significant.
“No one, I believe really understands the scale at which this industry is going to overtake the landscape of the commonwealth," Quigley said. "The environmental disruption from this industry is going to be massive."
Quigley recently testified before Maryland’s General Assembly, warning the state not to make the mistakes that his state made with drilling.
John Griffin, Maryland’s Secretary of Natural Resources, praised Quigley for sounding an alarm on the issue not only after he left office, but also while he was still working for the state.
"John has a lot of courage and credibility to state publicly what his concerns are," Griffin said.
There are no active gas wells today in Maryland’s state forests. But surrounding state land in the Western part of the Maryland, more than 500 owners of private properties have signed leases with drilling companies.
Secretary Griffin said that he, personally, does not believe public lands should be exploited by the energy industry. He noted that the O’Malley Administration three years ago rejected a proposal to allow even wind turbines in state forests.
“They are held in trust primary for conservation, and for public recreational use," Griffin said of state forests and parks.
"When you think about a whole lot of either commercial scale wind farms, or a lot of drilling platforms, it’s a great disruption to the increasing public use of those lands," Griffin said.
A difference between Pennsylvania and Maryland is that Pennsylvania, birthplace of the oil and gas industry, does not own the mineral rights under 15 percent of its state forests, and 85 percent of its state parks. Maryland owns all of the mineral rights under all of its public lands.
But at the core of the issue, for both states, are questions about the real purpose of public lands, and who government serves.
Jenny Lisak, for one, feels like her local state forest has been taken over by a private company. And, in a way, she's right. State records show that drilling companies now hold the rights to extract gas from under 96,547 acres of the Moshannon State Forest, which is more than half of the forest's 190,012 acres.
"In my opinion, this is not the purpose of what the state forests were really meant for," Lisak said. "An area set aside for conservation is now an industrial zone."
Article and photos by Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation