“…by letting our science lead us, we hope to guide natural gas development in a way that reduces its impacts to our lands and waters."
- Rodney Bartgis, State Director, The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia
By Randy Edwards
At the edge of a level plain about the size of a double-wide football field, surrounded by hills in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands region, work crews are spreading a layer of rugged black material that looks a little like tarpaper. But the thick, rubbery material is designed to be an added layer of protection, to ensure that whatever might spill here will not seep into the soil.
Today only a small crew scrambles around, but within weeks this site will be a swarm of activity as work begins on a project that would have been unthinkable a decade ago—drilling a well to tap the natural gas in the Marcellus shale gas field approximately one and a half miles below the surface of the earth.
The drilling and the related hydraulic fracturing process known as “fracking” present one of the most controversial environmental issues of our time. But The Nature Conservancy has come to this site to discuss ways in which we can work with energy companies to help address concerns about impacts on habitat, rare species and water.
This well is in Pennsylvania, but energy companies already have drilled between 1,200 and 1,400 wells into the Marcellus shale in West Virginia. And that number is predicted to grow rapidly in the future as it has for the past two years, in Pennsylvania.
Still, we’re at the beginning of the Marcellus Shale boom, and that means there remains an opportunity to influence how these wells are drilled. The Conservancy is talking with the developer of this well—Triana Energy—sharing with them information about ecologically sensitive areas in the Marcellus region in an effort to reduce the impacts of gas development on habitat and on water quality.
For example, Conservancy scientists have mapped many of West Virginia’s most ecologically important forest areas. And new advances in horizontal drilling technologies allow operators like Triana some flexibility in where they locate their well pads, choices not available as recently as 10 years ago. By comparing those maps to Triana’s geological data, we can help identify drilling sites that would have the least impact on forest habitat.
“There are opportunities with shale gas that historically we’ve not had with other forms of energy development,” explains Rodney Bartgis, state director for the Conservancy in West Virginia. “We are engaging early on, trying to give conservationists opportunities to influence this development in ways that were unavailable decades ago in order to influence the early development of coal.”
Technologically, he explains, shale gas developers have flexibility in placing gas wells on the landscape in ways that “traditional” gas and wind do not.
“We recognize that the search for alternative forms of energy is critical to our future, both for the nation’s security and to head off the worst of the possible effects of climate change,” Bartgis says. “But by letting our science lead us, we hope to guide natural gas development in a way that reduces its impacts to our lands and waters.”