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The Falcon: High Consequence Areas & Potential Impact Zones

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

In this segment of the Falcon Public EIA Project we continue to explore the different ways that pipelines are assessed for potential risk – in this case, relative to population centers, drinking water systems, and sensitive habitats. We outline methods dictated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) called “high consequence areas” (HCAs) and how they determine potential impact zones for highly volatile liquid (HVL) pipelines. These methods are then applied to the Falcon to understand its possible dangers.

Quick Falcon Facts

  • An estimated 940-foot potential impact radius (PIR)
  • 60 of 97 pipeline miles qualifying as High Consequence Areas (HCA)
  • More than 8,700 people living in the “vapor zone”
  • 5 schools, 6 daycare centers, and 16 emergency response centers in “vapor zone”
  • In proximity to 8 source-water (drinking water) protection areas
  • Affecting habitats populated by 11 endangered, protected, or threatened species

Map of Falcon High Consequence Areas

The following map will serve as our guide in breaking down the Falcon’s High Consequence Areas. Expand the map full-screen to explore its contents in greater depth. Some layers only become visible as you zoom in. A number of additional layers are not shown by default, but can be turned on in the “layers” tab. Click the “details” tab in full-screen mode to read how the different layers were created.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

High Consequence Areas

While Class Locations, discussed in a prior project article, dictate the construction and maintenance of a pipeline, high consequence areas (HCAs) designate when operators must implement integrity management programs (IMP) where pipeline failures could cause major impacts to populated areas, as well as drinking water systems and ecological resources — otherwise defined as unusually sensitive areas (USAs).

Populated Areas

Two considerations are used when determining pipeline proximity to population centers:

  1. High Population Areas – an urbanized area delineated by the Census Bureau as having 50,000 or more people and a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile; and
  2. Other Populated Areas – a Census Bureau designated “place” that contains a concentrated population, such as an incorporated or unincorporated city, town, village, or other designated residential or commercial area – including work camps.

USAs: Drinking Water

PHMSA’s definition of drinking water sources include things such as:

  • Community Water Systems (CWS) – serving at least 15 service connections and at least 25 year-round residents
  • Non-transient Non-community Water Systems (NTNCWS) – schools, businesses, and hospitals with their own water supplies
  • Source Water Protection Areas (SWPA) for a CWS or a NTNCWS
  • Wellhead Protection Areas (WHPA)
  • Sole-source karst aquifer recharge areas

These locations are typically supplied by regulatory agencies in individual states.

With the exception of sole-source aquifers, drinking water sources are only considered if they lack an alternative water source. However, PHMSA is strict on what alternative source means, stating that they must be immediately usable, of minimal financial impact, with equal water quality, and capable of supporting communities for at least one month for a surface water sources of water and at least six months for a groundwater sources.

One very important note in all of these “drinking water” USA designations is that they do not include privately owned groundwater wells used by residences or businesses.

USAs: Ecological Resource

Ecological resource areas are established based on any number of qualities with different variations. In general terms, they contain imperiled, threatened, or endangered aquatic or terrestrial species; are known to have a concentration of migratory waterbirds; or are a “multi-species assemblage” area (where three or more of the above species can be found).

Calculating HCAs

Like Class locations, HCAs are calculated based on proximity. The first step in this process is to determine the pipeline’s Potential Impact Radius (PIR) — the distance beyond which a person standing outdoors in the vicinity of a pipeline rupture and fire would have a 99% chance of survival; or in which death, injury, or significant property damage could occur. PIR is calculated based on the pipeline’s maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP), diameter, and the type of gas. An example of this calculation is demonstrated in FracTracker’s recent article on the Mariner East 2 pipeline’s PIR.

Once the PIR is known, operators then determine HCAs in one of two ways, illustrated in the image below:

  • Method 1: A Class 3 or Class 4 location, or a Class 1 or Class 2 location where “the potential impact radius is greater than 660 feet (200 meters), and the area within a potential impact circle contains 20 or more buildings intended for human occupancy”; or a Class 1 or Class 2 location where “the potential impact circle contains an “identified site.”
  • Method 2: An area within PIR containing an “identified site” or 20 or more buildings intended for human occupancy.

Calculating HCAs
(source: PHMSA)

In these definitions, “identified sites” include such things as playgrounds, recreational facilities, stadiums, churches, office buildings, community centers, hospitals, prisons, schools, and assisted-living facilities. However, there is a notable difference in how HCAs are calculated for natural gas pipelines vs. hazardous liquid pipelines.

Beyond just looking at what lies within the PIR, pipelines that contain gasses such as ethane potentially impact a much broader area as vapors flow over land or within a river, stream, lake, or other means. A truly accurate HCA analysis for an ethane pipeline leak requires extensive atmospheric modeling for likely vapor dispersions, such as seen in the example image below (part of a recent ESRI GIS conference presentation).

Vapor dispersion modelling
(source: TRC Solutions)

 

What HCAs Dictate

HCAs determine if a pipeline segment is included in an operator’s integrity management program (IMP) overseen by PHMSA or its state equivalent. IMPs must include risk assessments that identify the most likely impact scenarios in each HCA, enhanced management and repair schedules, as well as mitigation procedures in the event of an accident. Some IMPs also include the addition of automatic shut-off valves and leak detection systems, as well as coordination plans with local first responders.

The Falcon Risk Zones

Shell’s permit applications to the PA DEP state the pipeline:

…is not located in or within 100 feet of a national, state, or local park, forest, or recreation area. It is not located in or within 100 feet of a national natural landmark, national wildlife refuge, or federal, state, local or private wildlife or plant sanctuaries, state game lands. It is also not located in or within 100 feet of a national wild or scenic river, the Commonwealth’s Scenic Rivers System, or any areas designated as a Federal Wilderness Area. Additionally, there are no public water supplies located within the Project vicinity.

This is a partial truth, as “site” and “vicinity” are vague terms here. A number of these notable areas are within the PIR and HCA zones. Let’s take a closer look.

The PIR (or “Blast Zone”)

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Shell’s permit applications state a number of different pipeline dimensions will be used throughout the project. Most of the Falcon will be built with 12-inch steel pipe, with two exceptions: 1) The segment running from the Cadiz, OH, separator facility to its junction with line running from Scio, OH, will be a 10-inch diameter pipe; 2) 16-inch diameter pipe will be used from the junction of the Falcon’s two main legs located four miles south of Monaca, PA, to its end destination at the ethane cracker. We also know from comments made by Shell in public presentations that the Falcon’s maximum allowable operating pressure (MOAP) will be 1,440 psi. These numbers allow us to calculate the Falcon’s PIR which, for a 16″ ethane pipeline at 1,440psi, is about 940 feet. We’ve termed this the “blast zone” on our maps.

The HCA (or “Vapor Zone”)

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Shell’s analysis uses an HCA impact radius of 1.25 miles. This much larger buffer reflects the fact that vapors from hazardous liquid pipelines can travel unpredictably at high concentrations for long distances before ignition. This expanded buffer might be called the “vapor zone,” a term we used on our map. Within the HCA “vapor zone” we find that 60 of the Falcon’s 97 miles qualify as high consequence areas, with 35 miles triggered due to their proximity to drinking water sources, 25 miles trigger for proximity to populated areas, and 3 miles for proximity to ecological areas.

Populated Areas

Shell’s HCA buffer intersects 14 US Census-designated populated areas, shown in the table below. Falcon’s right-of-way directly intersects two of these areas: Cadiz Village in Harrison County, Ohio, and Southview CDP (Census Designated Place) in Washington County, PA. These areas are listed below. Additionally, we included on the FracTracker map the locations of public facilities that were found inside the HCA buffer. These include 5 public schools, 6 daycare centers, 10 fire stations, and 6 EMS stations.

Area Population State HCA
Pittsburgh Urbanized Area High PA Indirect
Weirton-Steubenville Urbanized Area High WV/OH/PA Indirect
Scio Village Other OH Indirect
Cadiz Village* Other OH Direct
Amsterdam Village Other OH Indirect
Shippingport Borough Other PA Indirect
Industry Borough Other PA Indirect
Hookstown Borough Other PA Indirect
Midway Borough Other PA Indirect
Clinton CDP Other PA Indirect
Imperial CDP Other PA Indirect
Southview CDP* Other PA Direct
Hickory CDP Other PA Indirect
Westland CDP Other PA Indirect
* Indicates an area the Falcon’s right-of-way will directly intersect

While it is difficult to determine the actual number of people living in the PIR and HCA vapor zone, there are ways one can estimate populations. In order to calculate the number of people who may live within the HCA and PIR zones, we first identified U.S. Census blocks that intersect each respective buffer. Second, we calculated the percentage of that census block’s area that lies within each buffer. Finally, we used the ratio of the two to determine the percentage of the block’s population that lies within the buffer.

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Based on 2010 Census data, we estimate that 2,499 people live within a reasonable projection of the Falcon’s PIR blast zone. When expanded to the HCA vapor zone, this total increases to 8,738 people. These numbers are relatively small compared to some pipelines due to the fact that a significant portion of the Falcon runs through fairly rural areas in most places.

PIR est. pop. HCA est. pop.
OHIO
Carroll County 11 47
Harrison County 274 915
Jefferson County 334 1,210
Total 619 2,172
WEST VIRGINIA
Hancock County 242 1,155
Total 242 1,155
PENNSYLVANIA
Allegheny County 186 969
Beaver County 990 3,023
Washington County 461 1,419
Total 1,637 5,410
Grand Total 2,499 8,738


Drinking Water Sources

Shell’s data identified a number of drinking water features considered in their HCA analysis. Metadata for this information show these sites were obtained from the Ohio Division of Drinking and Ground Waters, the West Virginia Source Water Assessment and Wellhead Protection Program, and the Pennsylvania DEP Wellhead Protection Program. The exact locations of public drinking water wells and intake points are generally protected by states for safety reasons. However, we duplicated the 5-mile buffer zones used on Shell’s map around these points, presumably denoting the boundaries of source water protection areas, wellhead protection areas, or intake points.

Drinking water buffers in Shell’s HCA analysis

As shown on FracTracker’s interactive map, five of these areas serve communities in the northern portions of Beaver County, shown in the image above, as well as the Cadiz and Weirton-Steubenville designated populated areas. Recall that HCA drinking water analysis only requires consideration of groundwater wells and not surface waters. This is an important distinction, as the Ambridge Reservoir is within the HCA zone but not part of Shell’s analysis — despite considerable risks outlined in our Falcon article on water body crossings.

Ecological Areas

Shell’s permits state that they consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC), and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) on their intended route in order to determine potential risks to protected species and ecologically sensitive areas.

DCNR responded that the pipeline had the potential to impact six sensitive plant species: Vase-vine Leather-Flower, Harbinger-of-spring, White Trout-Lily, Purple Rocket, Declined Trillium, and Snow Trillium. PFBC responded that the project may impact the Southern Redbelly Dace, a threatened temperate freshwater fish, within the Service Creek watershed. PGC responded that the pipeline had potential impact to habitats used by the Short-Eared Owl, Northern Harrier, and Silver-Haired Bat. Finally, the USFWS noted the presence of freshwater mussels in a number of water features crossed by the Falcon.

The presence of these species, as well as the proximity of protected lands illustrated on our map, factored into the Falcon’s HCA designations. A more detailed analysis of these issues is provided in the Falcon Public EIA Project article on Protected Habitats & Species of Concern.

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Related Articles

By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance

The Falcon: Protected Habitats & Species of Concern

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

Major pipeline projects are scrutinized by state and federal agencies for their potential impacts to threatened, endangered, and protected species. As part of the planning process, operators are required to consult with agencies to identify habitats known to support these species and are often asked to conduct detailed field surveys of specific areas. In this segment of the Falcon Pipeline EIA Project, we investigate how Shell corresponded with different agencies in complying with federal and state protected species guidelines.

Quick Falcon Facts

  • More than half (54%) of construction areas are currently forested or farmland
  • Botanical species Purple Rocket and Climbing Fern located in proximity to workspaces
  • 67 Northern Harrier observations documented during site studies
  • One active Bald Eagle nest and two inactive nests in proximity to workspaces
  • Northern Long-eared Bat roost trees discovered as close as 318 feet from workspaces
  • Clusters of protected freshwater mussels, coldwater fish, and hellbenders in the path of the Falcon

Map of Protected Habitats & Species of Concern

The following map will serve as our guide to exploring the Falcon’s proximity to protected habitats and species of concern. Expand the map full-screen to explore its contents in greater depth. Some layers only become visible at closer zoom levels. A number of additional layers are not shown by default, but can be turned on in the “layers” tab. Click the “details” tab in full-screen mode to read how the different layers were created.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

Shell’s permit applications detail extensive correspondences over a number of years — as early as August 2015 — with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC), Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR), among other agencies. These interactions tell a story of locating and cataloging threatened flowers, birds of prey, aquatic species, and bats.

Land Cover Assessment

A number of terrestrial habitat types are present along the Falcon pipeline’s route that will be disrupted during its construction. These are easily determined using data maintained by the USGS that tracks land cover and land use trends often used for understanding geospatial biodiversity. Shell used this data in their ecological impacts analysis and we have used it as well for comparison.

Habitat documentations from Shell’s permit applications

More than half (54%) of land in the Falcon’s construction area is currently forested land (deciduous and evergreen). Shell’s permits describe these areas as “contained cool, forested stream valleys and seeps and rich slopes” similar to the image above, which was submitted as part of Shell’s permit applications. An additional 35% is currently farmland (pasture/hay/crops). The remaining land cover is generally made up of water and wetlands, as well as residential and commercial development.

These numbers reflect the fact that the Falcon will travel through predominantly rural areas. Note that this analysis does not account for disruptions that will result from the pipeline’s 111 temporary and 21 permanent access roads. Land Cover for areas along the pipeline can be seen on the FracTracker map by activating the data in the “layers” tab.

Botanical Studies

In their correspondences with state agencies, Shell was notified that a number of important species would likely be found in these habitats. For instance, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) noted the following botanical species on their watch list would be present:

  • Vase-vine Leather-flower (endangered): documented in floodplain and slopes of Raccoon Creek
  • Harbinger-of-spring (rare): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • White Trout-lily (rare): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • Purple Rocket (endangered): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • Declined Trillium (threatened): documented along wooded tributaries and slopes of Raccoon Creek
  • Snow Trillium (rare): documented in tributary ravines along Raccoon Creek

DCNR requested a survey the Falcon’s route through all of Beaver County and the portion of Allegheny County north of the western fork of Raredon Run. AECOM, Shell’s contractor for this work, surveyed a 300-foot wide buffer along the pipeline route to allow for “minor alignment shifts” as construction plans are refined.

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A final survey report was submitted to DCNR in March 2017. In it, AECOM noted having found multiple populations of Harbinger-of-spring (seen below), Purple Rocket, as well as Climbing Fern (Lygodium palmatum), also the PA Watch List. FracTracker’s map locates the general location of botanical discoveries nearest to the pipeline route.

Documented Harbinger-of-spring

DCNR’s response to the survey stated that route changes and plans to bore under Raccoon Creek using HDDs eliminated risks to Harbinger-of-spring and Purple Rocket. Meanwhile, Climbing Fern was determined to be in close proximity, but not directly in the pipeline’s construction area. Although, documents note that a number of ferns were transplanted “to further the species’ success within the Commonwealth.” As a result of these determinations, DCNR granted clearance for construction in August 2017.

Short-eared Owls & Northern Harriers

Shell was also notified by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) that portions of the Falcon’s workspace would be located near six areas with known occurrences of Short-eared Owls (PA endangered species) and Northern Harriers (PA threatened species).

PGC requested a study of these areas to identify breeding and nesting locations, which AECOM executed from April-July 2016 within a 1,000-foot buffer of the pipeline’s workspace (limited to land cover areas consisting of meadows and pasture). One Short-eared Owl observation and 67 Northern Harrier observations were recorded during the study, but that some of these harriers appeared to be nesting just outside the study area. The study area is visible on the FracTracker map, as shown below.

AECOM’s Owl & Harrier study areas

In February 2017, Shell notified PGC that a number of reroutes had occurred that would shift the Falcon pipeline away from a subset of the observed Northern Harrier habitat. Although, there is no mention in the permit applications about identifying potential nest locations in the neighboring areas where AECOM’s biologists observed additional harriers. Nevertheless, PGC’s final determination in August 2017, approved the project, stipulating that, “based on the unusually high number of observations at these locations” work should not be done in these areas during harrier breeding season, April 15 through August 31.

Bald Eagles

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) notified Shell that a known Bald Eagle nest was located in Beaver County. Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) noted that two potential “alternate nests” were located where the Falcon crosses the Ohio River. National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines bar habitat disturbances that may interfere with the ability of eagles to breed, nest, roost, and forage.

AECOM surveyed these areas in March 2016 and March 2017. The first stage included an analysis of land cover data to determine other areas along the Falcon’s route that may be desirable eagle habitat. In addition to the sites noted above, AECOM determined that Fort Cherry Golf Course (discussed in gerater detail here) and Beaver Conservation District owned land (discussed in greater detail here) would serve as eagle habitat, although in later field surveys no additional nests were found.

The one active nest in close proximity to the Falcon, called the Montgomery Dam Nest, is located just west of the pipeline’s terminus at Shell’s ethane cracker facility. AECOM’s study determined that the foraging areas for a pair of eagles using the nest span the Ohio River and Raccoon Creek.

An additional nesting site was found near Tomlinson Run, along the Ohio River. During initial field observations it was noted that the nest was not in-use and is in an unmaintained condition. Nevertheless, its use by Bald Eagles as recently as 2015 means it is still considered an “alternate nest” and thus accorded protection from habitat modifications. A second alternate nest was found the west bank of the Ohio River. No previous history of the nest had been recorded by state agencies.

Bald Eagle Study Gaps?

Below are maps from Shell’s permit applications identifying the locations of the three nests. These can also be found on the FracTracker map.[/av_icon_box]

USFWS requested that Shell only implement setback buffers for the one active nest at Montgomery Dam. These include no tree clearing within 330 feet, no visible disturbances with 660 feet, and no excessive noise with 1,000 feet of an active nest. Furthermore, Shell must avoid all activities within 660ft of the nest from January 1st to July 31st that may disturb the eagles, including but not limited to “construction, excavation, use of heavy equipment, use of loud equipment or machinery, vegetation clearing, earth disturbance, planting, and landscaping.”

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According to Shell’s permit applications, the reroute that occurred at the Ohio River crossing took the Falcon pipeline away from the two alternate nest sites of concern, and the crossing at the river will be done with HDD boring, thus no impacts will occur. Apparently USFWS agreed with this position. However, as we see in the above maps, the HDD staging area on the WV side of the river (where a great deal of noise will likely occur) is just barely outside the 1,000 foot buffer.

Important Bird Areas

USFWS determined that the Falcon pipeline was also in close proximity to many migratory bird species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and that “direct or indirect, unintentional take of migratory birds may result even if all reasonable measures to avoid avian mortality are utilized.” In particular, the USFWS brought attention to the Raccoon Creek Valley and State Park Important Bird Area (IBA), which is located just south and west of the Falcon pipeline’s two major branches, as seen below.

USFWS recommended a number of strategies, such as co-locating the Falcon pipeline along rights-of-way used by existing pipelines. We see this indeed became the case, as 11 of the Falcon’s 23 pipeline miles in Beaver County are found adjacent to or parallel to existing ROWs.

Additional restrictions were placed on the project in Ohio, where ODNR determined that the Falcon is within range of the Upland Sandpiper, a state endangered bird that nests in grasslands and pastures. Shell was instructed to avoid construction in these habitat types from April 15-July 31 if such areas were to be disturbed. As we can see on the FracTracker map’s analysis of land cover data, there are significant areas of grassland and pasture in Ohio along the pipeline route.

No Peregrine Falcon?

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One absence we noted in AECOM’s birds of prey studies was any mention of Peregrine Falcons, listed as endangered and protected under the PA Game and Wildlife Code. Peregrine Falcons nest in cliffs and bridges along rivers in Allegheny and Beaver counties and are particularly prized by the PA DEP, as evidenced by a prominently displayed booth at their Harrisburg headquarters.

PA DEP Falcon Exhibit

One known nest is located under the East Rochester-Monaca Bridge just north of the Falcon pipeline’s terminus at Shell’s ethane cracker facility. While it is unlikely that activities such as tree clearing would affect falcon habitat, other aspects of the pipeline’s construction, such accidental drilling mud spills at HDD sites or ethane releases along Raccoon Creek, may indeed impact Falcon populations.

Federally Protected Bats

The USFWS notified Shell that the Falcon is located within the range of federally protected Indiana Bats and Northern Long-eared Bats in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and requested Shell conduct a bat “mist net” survey to identify breeding areas. Mist netting involves setting up nylon mesh nets at predetermined locations to capture and document bat populations.

AECOM’s bat survey was conducted from April-July 2016. While bats are known to live in caves and abandoned mines in winter, the study focused on summer habitats — mainly forests that support roost trees — given that tree clearing from building the pipeline would be the most likely impact. These forested areas constituted about 27 of the Falcon pipeline’s 97 miles in the two states. Mist net locations (MNLs) were established at 46 sites along the route, roughly 1/2 mile apart, as shown on the FracTracker map. A later reroute of the pipeline led to setting up 4 additional MNLs in June 2017.

A total of 274 bats from 6 different species were captured in the study, included 190 Big Brown Bats, 2 Silver-haired Bats, 62 Eastern Red Bats, 2 Hoary Bats, and 1 Little Brown Bat. 17 Northern Long-eared Bats were found at 13 of the MNL sites, but no Indiana Bats were captured. Radio transmitters were then attached to the Northern Long-eared Bats in order to follow them to roost trees. A total of 9 roost trees were located, with the nearest roost tree located 318 feet from the pipeline’s workspace.

A captured Northern Long-eared Bat

In January 2018, USFWS stated that, because the Falcon’s construction area is not within 150 feet of a known roost tree during breeding season or within a 1/4 mile of a known year-round hibernation site, that “incidental take that might result from tree removal is not prohibited.” However, USFWS also stated that “Due to the presence of several Northern Long-eared Bat roost trees within the vicinity of the project footprint (although outside of the 150-foot buffer), we recommend the following voluntary conservation measure: No tree removal between June 1 and July 31.”

Furthermore, the PGC noted in early correspondences that Silver-haired Bats may be in the region (a PA species of special concern). This was confirmed in AECOM’s mist net study. PGC did not require a further study for the species, but did request a more restrictive conservation of no tree clearing between April 1 and October 31.

Bat Study Gaps?

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There are a number of possible gaps in AECOM’s study that need attention. First, the study notes the nearest roost tree is 318 feet from the Falcon’s workspace, but this does not fully represent the likely impact to bat populations. As is seen in the map below, taken from Shell’s permits, this tree is just one in a cluster of five trees all within 750 feet of the pipeline’s workspace.

A dense cluster of bat roosting trees

Furthermore, tree clearing in this area will be extensive considering its proximity to the Falcon’s juncture in Beaver County that also must accommodate a metering pad and access roads. This area is shown in the permit application map below and can be explored on the FracTracker map as well.

A second questionable aspect of the study is that, while the USFWS letter states the Falcon is not “within a 1/4 mile of a known year-round hibernation site,” this was not proven in the study as it did not identify nearby winter habitats. These omissions are noteworthy given the already significant stressors to bat populations in the region, as well as increasing pressure from oil and gas companies to relax standards for protecting endangered bat species.

A Note on Noise Control

As part of their ability to build the Falcon pipeline, USFWS mandated that Shell employ an “independent noise consultant” to measure ambient pre-construction noise levels at each HDD site and at designated Noise Sensitive Areas (NSA), which are generally determined by the presence of protected bird and bat species. Less is known about the details of this part of AECOM’s study plan for Shell. However, we have located noise monitoring sites on the FracTracker map for reference.

Freshwater Mussels

The USFWS and PGC identified very early in the Shell’s construction plans that the project would likely impact four endangered mussel species: the Northern Riffelshell, the Clubshell, the Rayed Bean, and the Snuffbox. AECOM conducted a survey in May 2016, at the request of Pennsylvania and Ohio agencies at 16 perennial streams along the route in those two states. These are shown on the FracTracker map. In PA, mussels were found to be present at both of the Falcon’s intersections with Raccoon Creek, as seen in a photo from Shell’s permit application below.

Documented freshwater mussels in Raccoon Creek

The results of the Ohio study are unknown at this time. However, we found it interesting that ODNR’s letter to Shell stated that unavoidable impacts could be resolved by allowing specialists to collect and relocate mussels to suitable and similar upstream habitats. Meanwhile, it appears that the USFWS and PFBC have also green lighted construction around the two known Raccoon Creek mussel habitats, as Shell’s applications argue these waters would not be impacted due to the fact that they would be crossing using HDD boring.

Coldwater Fish

The PA Fish & Boat Commission notified Shell that the Falcon may impact the Southern Redbelly Dace. This threatened species is especially vulnerable to physical and chemical (turbidity, temperature) changes to their environment. PAFB explicitly notes in their correspondences that “we are concerned about potential impacts to the fish, eggs and the hatching fry from any in-stream work.” Of note is that these sites of concern are located in HQ/CWF streams of the Service Creek watershed (discussed in greater detail here), as shown on the map below.

Headwater streams in the Service Creek watershed

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Early correspondences with PFBC show the agency requesting that directional boring be used for these stream crossings or, if work necessitated direct impacts (such as open-cut crossings), that these activity be avoided during the spawning season. Shell responded to the request in stating that, with the exception of the Service Creek itself which will be crossed by HDD, the terrain surrounding its headwater streams was not suitable for boring, and would thus require open-cuts.

PFBC’s final determination on these matters is that they generally agreed, with the exception of the HDD site and one headwater stream (S-PA-151104-MRK-001), all other crossings must adhere to seasonal restrictions with no in-stream activity being conducted between May 1-July 31.

In Ohio, we see similar circumstances related to the River Darter, the Paddlefish, and the Channel Darter, all threatened species in the state. The ODNR recommended no in-stream work in the Ohio River from March 15-June 30 and no in-stream work in any of the state’s perennial streams from April 15-June 30.

Eastern Hellbenders

The Falcon is also within range of Eastern Hellbender habitat in Ohio, a state endangered species and a federal species of concern. In particular, ODNR noted that Yellow Creek, in Jefferson County, is known to host the species. Because of this, ODNR requested that if any in-stream work was to occur in Yellow Creek, a habitat suitability survey must be conducted to determine if Hellbenders were present. Yellow Creek’s tributaries are indeed crossed by the Falcon. Whether or not a study was conducted as a result of this is unknown due to our not having reviewed Shell’s Ohio permit applications. The below image, captured from our page on water crossings, shows these locations.

Falcon crossing Yellow Creek tributaries

Allowable Work Dates

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To summarize, there are numerous implications for how Shell’s construction of the Falcon pipeline must accommodate endangered, threatened, and rare species in different states. In particular, Shell must avoid land and aquatic disturbances during different breeding and spawning seasons. Below is a breakdown of these black-out periods. Note that these only apply to locations where sensitive species were found in AECOM’s studies.

Land Disturbances

  • Northern Harriers, Short-eared Owls (PGC): No clearing between April 15 and August 31
  • Bald Eagles (USFWS): No work between January 1 and July 31
  • Upland Sandpiper (ODNR): No clearing between April 15 and July 31
  • Bats (USFWS): No clearing between April 1 and October 31

Aquatic Disturbances

  • Southern Redbelly Dace (PFBC): No in-stream work between May 1 and July 31
  • River Darter, Paddlefish, Channel Darter (ODNR): No Ohio River work between March 15 and June 30; no perennial stream work between April 15 and June 30

* * *

Related Articles

SCOTT STOCKDILL/NORTH DAKOTA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH VIA AP - for oil spills in North Dakota piece

Oil Spills in North Dakota: What does DAPL mean for North Dakota’s future?

By Kate van Munster, Data & GIS Intern, and
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Pipelines are hailed as the “safest” way to transport crude oil and other refinery products, but federal and state data show that pipeline incidents are common and present major environmental and human health hazards. In light of current events that have green-lighted multiple new pipeline projects, including several that had been previously denied because of the environmental risk they pose, FracTracker Alliance is continuing to focus on pipeline issues.

In this article we look at the record of oil spills, particularly those resulting from pipeline incidents that have occurred in North Dakota, in order to determine the risk presented by the soon-to-be completed Dakota Access Pipeline.

Standing Rock & the DAPL Protest

To give readers a little history on this pipeline, demonstrators in North Dakota, as well as across the country, have been protesting a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s lands since April 2016. The tribe’s momentum has shifted the focus from protests at the build site to legal battles and a march on Washington DC. The pipeline section they are protesting has at this point been largely finished, and is slated to begin pumping oil by April 2017. This final section of pipe crosses under Lake Oahe, a large reservoir created on the Missouri River, just 1.5 miles north of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Lands. The tribe has condemned the pipeline because it cuts through sacred land and threatens their environmental and economic well-being by putting their only source for drinking water in jeopardy.

Pipelines

… supposedly safest form of transporting fossil fuels, but …

Pipeline proponents claim that pipelines are the safest method of transporting oil over long distances, whereas transporting oil with trucks has a higher accident and spill rate, and transporting with trains presents a major explosive hazards.

However, what makes one form of land transport safer than the others is dependent on which factor is being taken into account. When considering the costs of human death and property destruction, pipelines are indeed the safest form of land transportation. However, for the amount of oil spilled, pipelines are second-worst, beaten only by trucks. Now, when it comes to environmental impact, pipelines are the worst.

What is not debatable is the fact that pipelines are dangerous, regardless of factor. Between 2010 and October 2016 there was an average of 1.7 pipeline incidents per day across the U.S. according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). These incidents have resulted in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and over $3.4 billion in property damage. More than half of these incidents were caused by equipment failure and corrosion (See Figures 1 and 2).

incidentcounts

Figure 1. Impacts of pipeline incidents in the US. Data collected from PHMSA on November 4th, 2016 (data through September 2016). Original Analysis

pipeline incidents causes

Figure 2. Cause of pipeline incidents for all reports received from January 1, 2010 through November 4, 2016. Original Analysis

Recent Spills in North Dakota

To dig into the risks posed in North Dakota more specifically, let’s take a look at some spill data in the state.

Map 1. Locations of Spills in North Dakota, with volume represented by size of markers

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

In North Dakota alone there have been 774 oil spill incidents between 2010 and September 2016, spilling an average of 5,131 gallons of oil per incident. The largest spill in North Dakota in recent history, and one of the largest onshore oil spills in the U.S., took place in September 2013. Over 865,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into a wheat field and contaminated about 13 acres. The spill was discovered several days later by the farmer who owns the field, and was not detected by remote monitors. The state claims that no water sources were contaminated and no wildlife were hurt. However, over three years of constant work later, only about one third of the spill has been recovered.

This spill in 2013 may never be fully cleaned up. Cleanup attempts have even included burning away the oil where the spill contaminated wetlands.

More recently, a pipeline spilled 176,000 gallons of crude oil into a North Dakota stream about 150 miles away from the DAPL protest camps. Electronic monitoring equipment, which is part of a pipeline’s safety precautions, did not detect the leak. Luckily, a landowner discovered the leak on December 5, 2016 before it got worse, and it was quickly contained. However, the spill migrated nearly 6 miles down the Ash Coulee Creek and fouled a number of private and U.S. Forest lands. It has also been difficult to clean up due to snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Even if a spill isn’t as large, it can still have a major effect. In July 2016, 66,000 gallons of heavy oil, mixed with some natural gas, spilled into the North Saskatchewan River in Canada. North Battleford and the city of Prince Albert had to shut off their drinking water intake from the river and were forced to get water from alternate sources. In September, 2 months later, the affected communities were finally able to draw water from the river again.

Toxicology of Oil

Hydrocarbons and other hazardous chemicals

Crude oil is a mixture of various hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are compounds that are made primarily of carbon and hydrogen. The most common forms of hydrocarbons in crude oil are paraffins. Crude oil also contains naphthenes and aromatics such as benzene, and many other less common molecules. Crude oil can also contain naturally occurring radioactive materials and trace metals. Many of these compounds are toxic and carcinogenic.

hydrocarbons

Figure 3. Four common hydrocarbon molecules containing hydrogen (H) and carbon (C). Image from Britannica

Crude oil spills can contaminate surface and groundwater, air, and soil. When a spill is fresh, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, quickly evaporate into the air. Other components of crude oil, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can remain in the environment for years and leach into water.

Plants, animals, and people can sustain serious negative physical and biochemical effects when they come in contact with oil spills. People can be exposed to crude oil through skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation. Expsure can irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system, and could cause “dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, confusion, and anemia.” VOCs can be inhaled and are highly toxic and carcinogenic. PAHs can also be carcinogenic and have been shown to damage fish embryos. When animals are exposed to crude oil, it can damage their liver, blood, and other tissue cells. It can also cause infertility and cancer. Crops exposed to crude oil become less nutritious and are contaminated with carcinogens, radioactive materials, and trace metals. Physically, crude oil can completely cover plants and animals, smothering them and making it hard for animals to stay warm, swim, or fly.

An Analysis of Spills in ND

Below we have analyzed available spill data for North Dakota, including the location and quantity of such incidents.

North Dakota saw an average of 111 crude oil spills per year, or a total of 774 spills from 2010 to October 2016. The greatest number of spills occurred in 2014 with a total of 163. But 2013 had the largest spill with 865,200 gallons and also the highest total volume of oil spilled in one year of 1.3 million gallons. (Table 1)

Table 1. Data on all spills from 2010 through October 2016. Data taken from PHMSA and North Dakota.

  2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Jan-Oct 2016
Number of Spills 55 80 77 126 163 117 156
Total Volume (gallons) 332,443 467,544 424,168 1,316,910 642,521 615,695 171,888
Ave. Volume/Spill (gallons) 6,044 5,844 5,509 10,452 3,942 5,262 1,102
Largest Spill (gallons) 158,928 106,050 58,758 865,200 33,600 105,000 64,863

The total volume of oil spilled from 2010 to October 2016 was nearly 4 million gallons, about 2.4 million of which was not contained. Most spills took place at wellheads, but the largest spills occurred along pipelines. (Table 2)

Table 2. Spills by Source. Data taken from PHMSA and North Dakota.

  Wellhead Vehicle Accident Storage Pipeline Equipment Uncontained All Spills
Number of Spills 694 1 12 54 13 364 774
Total Volume (gallons) 2,603,652 84 17,010 1,281,798 68,623 2,394,591 3,971,169
Ave. Volume/Spill (gallons) 3,752 84 1,418 23,737 5,279 6,579 5,131
Largest Spill (gallons) 106,050 84 10,416 865,200 64,863 865,200 865,200

A. Sensitive Areas Impacted

Spills that were not contained could potentially affect sensitive lands and waterways in North Dakota. Sensitive areas include Native American Reservations, waterways, drinking water aquifers, parks and wildlife habitat, and cities. Uncontained spill areas overlapped, and potentially contaminated, 5,875 square miles of land and water, and 408 miles of streams.

Drinking Water Aquifers – 2,482.3 total square miles:

  • Non-Community Aquifer – 0.3 square miles
  • Community Aquifer – 36 square miles of hydrologically connected aquifer
  • Surficial Aquifer – 2,446 square miles of hydrologically connected aquifer

A large area of potential drinking water (surficial aquifers) are at risk of contamination. Of the aquifers that are in use, aquifers for community use have larger areas that are potentially contaminated than those for non-community use.

Native American Tribal Reservation

  • Fort Berthold, an area of 1,569 square miles

Cities – 67 total square miles

  • Berthold
  • Dickinson
  • Flaxton
  • Harwood
  • Minot
  • Petersburg
  • Spring Brook
  • Stanley
  • West Fargo

Map 2. Areas where Oil Spills Present Public Health Threats

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

B. Waterways Where Spills Have Occurred

  • Floodplains – 73 square miles of interconnected floodplains
  • Streams – 408 miles of interconnected streams
  • Of the 364 oil spills that have occurred since 2010, 229 (63%) were within 1/4 mile of a waterway
  • Of the 61 Uncontained Brine Spills that have occurred since 2001, 38 (63%) were within 1/4 mile of a waterway.

If a spill occurs in a floodplain during or before a flood and is uncontained, the flood waters could disperse the oil over a much larger area. Similarly, contaminated streams can carry oil into larger rivers and lakes. Explore Map 3 for more detail.

Map 3. Oil Spills in North Dakota Waterways

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

C. Parks & Wildlife Habitat Impacts

1,684 total square miles

Habitat affected

  • National Grasslands – on 1,010 square miles of interconnected areas
  • United States Wildlife Refuges – 84 square miles of interconnected areas
  • North Dakota Wildlife Management Areas – 24 square miles of interconnected areas
  • Critical Habitat for Endangered Species – 566 square miles of interconnected areas

The endangered species most affected by spills in North Dakota is the Piping Plover. Explore Map 4 for more detail.

Map 4. Wildlife Areas Impacted by Oil Spills

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Methods

Using ArcGIS software, uncontained spill locations were overlaid on spatial datasets of floodplains, stream beds, groundwater regions, sensitive habitats, and other sensitive regions.

The average extent (distance) spilled oil traveled from uncontained spill sites was calculated to 400 meters. This distance was used as a buffer to approximate contact of waterways, floodplains, drinking water resources, habitat, etc. with uncontained oil spills.

Oil Spills in North Dakota Analysis References:


Cover Photo: The site of a December 2016 pipeline spill in North Dakota. Credit: Scott Stockdill/North Dakota Department of Health via AP

“Taking” Wildlife in PA, OH, WV

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

 

In an apparent move to step around compliance with comprehensive regulations outlined in the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a coalition of nine oil and gas corporations has filed a draft plan entitled the Oil & Gas Coalition Multi-State Habitat Conservation Plan (O&G HCP). The proposed plan, which would relax regulations on five species of bats, is unprecedented in scope in the eastern United States, both temporally and spatially. If approved, it would be in effect for 50 years, and cover oil and gas operations throughout the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—covering over 110,000 square miles. The oil and gas companies see the plan as a means of “streamlining” the permit processes associated with oil and gas exploration, production, and maintenance activities. Others outside of industry may wonder whether the requested permit is a broad over-reach of an existing loophole in the ESA.

Habitat fragmentation, air, and noise pollution that comes with oil and gas extraction and fossil fuel delivery activities have the potential to incidentally injure or kill bat species in the three-State plan area that are currently protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. In essence, the requested “incidental take permit”, or ITP, would acknowledge that these companies would not be held to the same comprehensive regulations that are designed to safeguard the environment, particularly the flora and fauna at most risk to extirpation. Rather, they would simply be asked to insure that their impacts are “minimized and mitigated to the maximum extent practicable.”

Section 10(a)(2)(B) of the ESA contains provisions for issuing an ITP to a non-Federal entity for the take of endangered and threatened species, provided the following criteria are met:

  • The taking will be incidental
  • The applicant will, to the maximum extent practicable, minimize and mitigate the impact of such taking
  • The applicant will develop an HCP and ensure that adequate funding for the plan will be provided
  • The taking will not appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery of the species in the wild
  • The applicant will carry out any other measures that the Secretary may require as being necessary or appropriate for the purposes of the HCP

What activities would be involved?

n_long-eared_bat

The Northern Long-eared Bat is a federally-listed threatened species, also included in the ITP

The proposed plan, which would seek to exempt both upstream development activities (oil & gas wells) and midstream development activities (pipelines). Upstream activities include the creation of access roads, staging areas, seismic operations, land clearing, explosives; the development and construction of well fields, including drilling, well pad construction, disposal wells, water impoundments, communication towers; and other operations, including gas flaring and soil disturbance; and decommissioning and reclamation activities, including more land moving and excavation.

Midstream activities include the construction of gathering, transmission, and distribution pipeline, including land grading and stream construction, construction of compressor stations, meter stations, electric substations, storage facilities, and processing plants, and installation of roads, culverts, and ditches, to name just a few.

Companies involved in the proposed “Conservation Plan” represent the major players in fossil fuel extraction, refinement, and delivery in the region, and include:

  • Antero Resources Corporation
  • Ascent Resources, LLC
  • Chesapeake Energy Corporation
  • EnLink Midstream L.P.
  • EQT Corporation
  • MarkWest Energy Partners, L.P., MPLX L.P., and Marathon Petroleum Corporation (all part of same corporate enterprise)
  • Rice Energy, Inc.
  • Southwestern Energy Company
  • The Williams Companies, Inc.

Focal species of the request

Populations of federally endangered Indiana Bats could be impacted by the proposed Incidental Take Permit (ITP)

Populations of federally-endangered Indiana Bats could be impacted by the proposed Incidental Take Permit (ITP)

The five species listed in the ITP include the Indiana Bat (a federally-listed endangered species) and Northern Long-eared Bat (a federally-listed threatened species), the Eastern Small-footed Bat (a threatened species protected under Pennsylvania’s Game and Wildlife Code), as well as the Little Brown Bat and Tri-colored Bat. Populations of all five species are already under dire threats due to white-nose syndrome, a devastating disease that, since 2008, has killed an estimated 5.7 million bats in North America. In some cases, entire local populations have succumbed to this deadly disease. Because bats already have a naturally low birthrate, bat populations that do survive this epidemic will be slow to rebound. Only recently, wildlife biologists have begun to see hope for a treatment in a beneficial bacterium that may save affected bats. However, production and deployment details of this treatment are still under development. Best summarized in a recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

This [ITP] would be a huge deal because we are dealing with species in a precipitous decline,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit conservation organization headquartered in Tucson, Ariz. “I don’t see how it could be biologically defensible. Even without the drilling and energy development we don’t know if these species will survive.

In 2012, Bat Conservation International produced a report for Delaware Riverkeeper, entitled Impacts of Shale Gas Development on Bat Populations in the Northeastern United States. The report focuses on landscape scale impacts that range from water quality threats, to disruption of winter hibernacula, the locations where bats hibernate during the winter, en masse. In addition, because bats have strong site fidelity to roosting trees or groups of trees, forest clearing for pipelines, well pads or other facilities may disproportionately impact local populations.

The below map, developed by FracTracker Alliance, shows the population ranges of all five bat species, as well as the current areas impacted by existing development by the oil and gas industry through well sites, pipelines, and other facilities.

View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

 

To learn more details about the extensive oil and gas development in each of the impacted states, follow these links:

  • Oil and gas threat map for Pennsylvania. Currently, there are ~104,000 oil and gas wells, compressors, and other related facilities here.
  •  Oil and gas threat map for Ohio. Currently, there are ~90,000 oil and gas wells, compressors, and other related facilities here.
  • Oil and gas threat map for West Virginia. Currently, there are ~16,000 oil and gas wells, compressors, and other related facilities here.

Public input options

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced in the Federal Register in late November 2016 its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) and hold five public scoping sessions about the permit, as well as an informational webinar.  In keeping with the parameters of an environmental impact statement, USFWS is particularly interested in input and information about:

  • Aspects of the human environment that warrant examination such as baseline information that could inform the analyses.
  • Information concerning the range, distribution, population size, and population trends concerning the covered species in the plan area.
  • Additional biological information concerning the covered species or other federally listed species that occur in the plan area.
  • Direct, indirect, and/or cumulative impacts that implementation of the proposed action (i.e., covered activities) will have on the covered species or other federally listed species.
  • Information about measures that can be implemented to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts to the covered species.
  • Other possible alternatives to the proposed action that the Service should consider.
  • Whether there are connected, similar, or reasonably foreseeable cumulative actions (i.e., current or planned activities) and their potential impacts on covered species or other federally listed species in the plan area.
  • The presence of archaeological sites, buildings and structures, historic events, sacred and traditional areas, and other historic preservation concerns within the plan area that are required to be considered in project planning by the National Historic Preservation Act.
  • Any other environmental issues that should be considered with regard to the proposed HCP and potential permit issuance.

The public comment period ends on December 27, 2016. Links to more information about locations of the public hearings, as well as instructions about how to sign up for the December 20, 2016 informational webinar can be found at this website. In addition, you can electronically submit comments about the “conservation plan” by following this link.

The Mississippi Fracking Fight: Saving Forests, Woodpeckers, and the Climate

By Wendy Park, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity

 

If the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gets its way, large areas of Mississippi’s Bienville and Homochitto national forests will be opened up to destructive fracking. This would harm one of the last strongholds for the rare and beautiful red-cockaded woodpecker, create a new source of climate pollution, and fragment our public forests with roads, drilling pads and industrial equipment. That’s why we’re fighting back.

My colleagues and I at the Center for Biological Diversity believe that all species, great and small, must be preserved to ensure a healthy and diverse planet. Through science, law and media, we defend endangered animals and plants, and the land air, water, and climate they need. As an attorney with the Center’s Public Lands Program, I am helping to grow the “Keep It in the Ground” movement, calling on President Obama to halt new leases on federal lands for fracking, mining, and drilling that only benefit private corporations.

That step, which the president can take without congressional approval, would align U.S. energy policies with its climate goals and keep up to 450 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution from entering the atmosphere. Already leased federal fossil fuels will last far beyond the point when the world will exceed the carbon pollution limits set out in the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. That limit is expected to be exceeded in a little over four years. We simply cannot afford any more new leases.

Fracking Will Threaten Prime Woodpecker Habitat

In Mississippi, our concerns over the impact of fracking on the rare red-cockaded woodpecker and other species led us to administratively protest the proposed BLM auction of more than 4,200 acres of public land for oil and gas leases the Homochitto and Bienville national forests. The red-cockaded woodpecker is already in trouble. Loss of habitat and other pressures have shrunk its population to about 1% of its historic levels, or roughly 12,000 birds. In approving the auction of leases to oil and gas companies, BLM failed to meet its obligation to protect these and other species by relying on outdated forest plans, ignoring the impact of habitat fragmentation, not considering the effects of fracking on the woodpecker, and ignoring the potential greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas taken from these public lands. The public was also not adequately notified of BLM’s plans.

 

Mississippi National Forests, Potential BLM Oil & Gas Leasing Parcels, and Red Cockaded Woodpecker Sightings


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

Fracking Consequences Ignored

According to the National Forest Service’s 2014 Forest Plan Environmental Impact Statement, core populations of the red-cockaded woodpecker live in both the Bienville and Homochitto national forests, which provide some of the most important habitat for the species in the state. The Bienville district contains the state’s largest population of these birds and is largely untouched by oil and gas development. The current woodpecker population is far below the target set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan. A healthy and fully recovered population will require large areas of mature forest. But the destruction of habitat caused by clearing land for drilling pads, roads, and pipelines will fragment the forest, undermining the species’ survival and recovery.

red-cockaded_woodpecker_insertNew leasing will likely result in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. In their environmental reviews, BLM and the Forest Service entirely ignore the potential for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to be used in the Bienville and Homochitto national forests and their effects on the red-cockaded woodpecker. Fracking would have far worse environmental consequences than conventional drilling. Effects include increased pollution from larger rigs; risks of spills and contamination from transporting fracking chemicals and storing at the well pad; concentrated air pollution from housing multiple wells on a single well pad; greater waste generation; increased risks of endocrine disruption, birth defects, and cardiology hospitalization; and the risk of earthquakes caused by wastewater injection and the hydraulic fracturing process (as is evident in recent earthquakes in Oklahoma and other heavily fracked areas).

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Climate Change

Oil and gas development also results in significant greenhouse gas emissions from construction, operating fossil-fuel powered equipment during production, reclamation, transportation, processing and refining, and combustion of the extracted product. But BLM and the Forest Service have refused to analyze potential emissions or climate change effects from new leasing. Climate change is expected to worsen conditions for the woodpecker, compounding the harms of destructive drilling practices. Extreme weather events will become more frequent in the Southeast U.S. as temperatures rise. Hurricane Katrina resulted in significant losses of woodpecker habitat and birds in the Mississippi national forests. The Forest Service should be redoubling its efforts to restore and preserve habitat, but instead it is turning a blind eye to climate change threats.

At a time when world leaders are meeting in Morocco to discuss the climate crisis and scientists tell us we already have enough oil and gas fields operating to push us past dangerous warming thresholds, it’s deeply disturbing that the Obama administration continues to push for even more oil and gas leases on America’s public lands. The BLM’s refusal to acknowledge and analyze the effects of fracking on the climate, at-risk species, and their habitat, is not only inexcusable it is illegal. The science is clear: The best way to address catastrophic warming — and protect wildlife — is to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Photographs for this article were sourced from the U.S. Department of Agriculture fair-use photostream.

Songbird Nurseries of Pennsylvania

Guest Blog by Paul T. Zeph, Director of Conservation for Audubon Pennsylvania

Millions of small, beautiful, colorful songbirds that live in the tropics for most of the year venture north each spring to Pennsylvania to nest in our deep, quiet forests—forests that are now in danger of being fracked apart into industrial zones of natural gas extraction.

Pennsylvania’s forests provide nesting habitat for 17% of the world’s Scarlet Tanagers. Photo courtesy of the PA Gaming Commission.

Pennsylvania’s forests provide nesting habitat for 17% of the world’s Scarlet Tanagers. Photo by Jake Dingel, via the PA Game Commission.

The names of these birds are often described by their vibrant colors:  Black-throated Blue Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Cerulean Warbler, or Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Here, in the deep remnants of Penn’s Woods, they find an abundance of caterpillars and other insects that are critical protein for raising baby birds. Once the young are fledged and finding food on their own, the parents and juveniles head back south in early fall to their “non-breeding” habitat, which is more accurately called the Neotropics; that is, the New World tropics of the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

Most of these Neotropical migrants cannot nest successfully in small woodlots or fragmented forests, and depend upon large, undisturbed tracts of woodland that we call “core” forests.  These are forests that are at least 300 feet from a permanent edge – such as a road, utility corridor, or housing development.  Pennsylvania still has some very large forest blocks, primarily in the northern tier of the state, that serve as bird “nurseries”—places where the nest density is high and many species are successfully fledging young.

A recently-completed Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas is undergoing analysis by many researchers, and the data is helping us to identify the “best of the best” places in the state needed to sustain populations of our Neotropical visitors, for which we have a North American responsibility.  Not surprisingly, these quiet, large blocks of forest are also favorite places for humans to use for passive recreation, relaxation, and spiritual renewal.  If you want a quiet, peaceful place to escape the modern world for a weekend, look for places frequented in June by Blackburnian Warblers or Blue-headed Vireos.


Unconventional drilling and key forest songbird habitat in Pennsylvania. To access the legend, layer descriptions, and other tools, click on the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner of the map.

Since many populations of our Neotropical species have been dramatically declining over the past 50 years, we need to protect as much nesting habitat as possible.  In 100 years, we will probably see many species disappear from Pennsylvania altogether due to fragmentation and climate change.  Our northern forest blocks may be a last refuge for a number of bird and other animal species that cannot survive in our sprawling suburbs or the ecological changes that will come with a warming planet.

Extensive gas infrastructure in forested Pennsylvania land. Photo by Pete Stern, 2013.

Extensive gas infrastructure in forested Pennsylvania land. Photo by Pete Stern, 2013.

Fracking is a heavily industrialized activity that not only causes short-term fragmentation, noise, and ecological disruption, but can lead to long-term ecological collapse of healthy, intact forest blocks.  Birds are only one of many types of animals that are impacted by the vast array of fracking infrastructure that is becoming all-too-common in our state’s quiet and shady bird nurseries, trout streams, and recreation areas:  widened roads letting in sunlight and nest predators; long, wide pipelines creating miles of permanent edge; thousands of acres of forest floor buried under compacted gravel pads; rain events carrying road and well pad gravel into sensitive headwater streams, burying aquatic life.

We have precious few public lands left in Pennsylvania that have not been leased for mineral extraction.  We must do all that we can to prevent leasing of lands where the state owns the mineral rights; and, where the rights are severed and owned by another, we must find compromises and solutions that keep as much of the forest intact as possible.