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Bright Ideas for Greening Energy Development

“We have the tools to make a difference, but if we don’t act soon, there are going to be growing conflicts between energy development and environmental conservation, and conservation is likely to lose.”
—Nels Johnson, The Nature Conservancy's  Deputy Director
in Pennsylvania

By Randy Edwards

What’s a wetland worth? Can we put a price on a prairie? Are native animals an asset?

If asked to affix a monetary value to the sound of a bull elk bugling through the morning mists of Pennsylvania’s northern forests, many of us would echo the credit card commercial: priceless. And yet, we have learned a little about the tangible value of nature. We know it costs less for communities to treat drinking water that runs through forests. We witness the economic benefits to towns near popular hunting and fishing sites. We’ve learned to promote sustainably harvested timber in a way that opens new markets for forest products.

But we’re also aware that the association between the economy and the environment is often articulated as a challenge: people vs. nature being the most common expression of this connection. And these days, that challenge is most likely to be found in the debate over energy development.

The Nature Conservancy is pioneering ways to bring its science-based and pragmatic conservation approach to the most important environmental debate of our generation— a debate that involves anyone who ever flips a light switch.

Energy Infrastructure in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania is an epicenter of the global energy revolution, evidence of which can been seen everywhere—from the sweeping blades of wind turbines along the Allegheny Front to the shale gas drilling rigs dotting the Marcellus gas fields of Bradford County. As the search for new forms of energy kicked into high gear about five years ago, the Conservancy quickly realized that some of our most valuable ecological resources lie squarely in the path of this development.

Our original “energy impacts analysis,” released in the fall of 2010, clearly spelled out the threat, detailing how energy development could negatively affect up to 40 percent of the Commonwealth’s largest and most ecologically valuable forest areas and 80 percent of native brook trout streams.

The report attracted attention from policymakers and newsmakers alike, and has provided a science-based framework for the discussion about Pennsylvania’s energy future. An expansion of this report, released this past winter, adds to this discussion by highlighting, among other things, the impact of new pipelines that will need to be built to bring the Marcellus gas to market. The report projects as many as 25,000 additional miles of natural gas pipelines may be needed, tripling the amount of large diameter pipelines existing in Pennsylvania before the Marcellus boom began.

Energy Analysis Expands into Central Appalachians
With the groundwork laid in Pennsylvania, the Conservancy is carrying its energy analysis work into other states, applying the same assessment throughout an eight-state region from New York to Tennessee, focusing on energy impacts to the biologically rich Central Appalachians.

The scientific review considers the ongoing shale gas development and also includes a review of the impacts of coal and wind energy development in the Central Appalachians.

The overlap of high-wind energy resources and mountain ridges is one of the first realities to become clear to the researchers, raising concerns about national forests and other public lands that often occupy the highest ground in the mountains and provide habitat for a wide range of species and important recreation areas for millions of Americans.

“Our forests are some of the most intact in the East. They provide the habitat, scenic views, and incredible recreational opportunities that make the Central Appalachians the great place that it is,” says Thomas Minney, director of the Conservancy’s Central Appalachians Program. “It’s very important that we understand how the infrastructure of energy development will affect these forests as the energy development footprint expands rapidly.”

Spreading the Word
Understanding the implications of energy development doesn’t accomplish much if we don’t communicate it, so the Conservancy has been working with other environmental and conservation groups to help opinion leaders understand the potential impact of energy development in order to inform future policies and legislation.

Nels Johnson, the Conservancy’s deputy director in Pennsylvania and the lead author of the Conservancy’s energy study, testified before Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, and Ron Ramsey, the Conservancy’s senior policy advisor for Pennsylvania, was one of the four environmental representatives on the commission. When the Commission made its recommendations, its report quoted the energy study at length.

The lessons learned from Pennsylvania’s analysis also have been used in the development of a draft environmental impact statement on shale gas development in New York and have been cited in the executive order that established a natural gas development commission in Maryland.

Johnson also testified at an “energy summit” hosted by Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“We have the tools to make a difference, but if we don’t act soon, there are going to be growing conflicts between energy development and environmental conservation, and conservation is likely to lose,” says Johnson.

Corporate Best Practices
Several natural gas development companies, driven by their desire to meet their own corporate practice environmental standards and to find new approaches and technologies that can address the public’s concerns about this rapidly expanding business, have expressed an interest in working with the Conservancy to develop standards and practices that can avoid or minimize the harmful effects of energy development.

The Conservancy and the University of Tennessee are working together to develop and test tools that might eventually be useful in making shale gas development less destructive to upland forest habitat in the Appalachian region. If these “decision support tools” show promise, and guide us in successfully balancing development and environmental concerns, then we hope to use them to set high standards for shale gas development across the region.