|This aerial view, from northwest Pennsylvania, shows well pads and associated roads, and visually demonstrates the level of disturbance that natural gas activities can have on forests and other natural resources. (High resolution image)
RESTON, Va. — Landscape change resulting from construction of well pads, new roads and pipelines for natural gas and coalbed methane exploration in Pennsylvania's Bradford and Washington counties is being documented to help determine the potential consequences for ecosystems and wildlife, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report released today.
Using geospatial data and high resolution aerial imagery from 2004-2010, USGS researchers documented spatially explicit patterns of disturbance, or land use, related to natural gas resource development, such as hydraulic fracturing, particularly disturbance patterns related to well pads, roads and pipeline construction.
Spatially explicit data on the level of landscape disturbance -- which is geographic information systems data, mapped to a high degree of spatial accuracy -- is critically important to the long-term study of the potential impacts of natural gas development on human and ecological health.
"The widespread use of hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas and coalbed methane in these counties has unlocked new sources of energy, but it is also modifying the landscape at an unprecedented rate compared with other forms of energy development," said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. "The value of this study is that it documents emerging issues with a rapidly expanding practice, so that all involved in decision making can make informed choices."
Through programs such as the National Land Cover Database, and Land Cover Trends, USGS has a long record of studying the consequences of land-use and land-cover changes. The current level of natural gas development in much of the country, and its effects on the landscape, is an important contemporary land-use/land-cover issue.
"Large-scale landscape disturbance can have a significant impact on ecological resources and the services they provide. This study provides a quantitative look at the levels of disturbance, forest loss and other changes to land use and land cover," said Terry Slonecker, lead author of the research.
These data will be used to assess the effects of disturbance and land-cover change on wildlife, water quality, invasive species and socioeconomic impacts, among other investigations.
Because of their underlying geology, Bradford and Washington counties are exceptionally productive areas of Marcellus Shale natural gas development and were specifically chosen for this initial report.
The study found that in Bradford County, 642 natural gas extraction sites resulted in more than 1500 hectares of disturbance, including 74 kilometers (45 miles) of new roads and 178 kilometers (110 miles) of new pipelines.
In Washington County, 949 natural gas extraction sites resulted in more than 1800 hectares of disturbance, including 277 kilometers (172 miles) of new roads and 216 kilometers (134 miles) of new pipelines.
The study, "Landscape Consequences of Natural Gas Extraction in Bradford and Washington Counties, Pennsylvania, 2004 to 2010," Open File Report 2012-1154, is the first of a series planned relating to natural gas landscape disturbance.