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Sow Love and Hope with FracTracker

FracTracker Alliance celebrates February, the “month of love,” as we do most months – by striving to help people and the planet. A few weeks ago, we sent checks to four organizations who were recipients of our December “spreading the cheer initiative,” receiving half our online donations that month in honor of the four winners of the 2018 Community Sentinel Award.  The beneficiaries included Redeemer Community Partnership (Los Angeles, CA), SkyTruth (Shepherdstown, WV), League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans (Erie, CO), and Clean Air Council (Philadelphia, PA). Thanks to our December donors for providing a total of $860 to these important groups.

Our care extends beyond our nonprofit brethren to directly address Mother Earth. Less than 120 miles north of my office, Pine Creek flows to the Susquehanna River, draining nearly 1,000 square miles and encompassing one of the highest concentrations of exceptional value and high quality streams anywhere in the Keystone state. The creek’s breathtaking 47-mile gorge is known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

Photo of Pine Creek Gorge by Nicholas Tonelli, Flickr

Unfortunately, the Pine Creek watershed has been inundated by hundreds of unconventional and conventional natural gas wells and the pipelines, compressor stations, impoundments and access roads that accompany oil and gas development.  It is estimated that in the watershed’s Tiadaghton State Forest, more than 1,000 acres have already been disturbed by gas operations.  Much of this degradation has occurred in the last 10 years. With wilderness in the balance, FracTracker – with support from the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds – is examining what a decade of drilling means for this treasured landscape and its beloved woods and waters.

Over the next few months, we aim to construct a digital atlas – ripe with vivid, detailed maps and data – to tell the story of the changes in this emblematic place. The capstone will be an extensive field documentation tour using staff and volunteers deployed with cameras and the FracTracker mobile app. With the help of groups like the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, Save Pennsylvania Forests Coalition, Responsible Drilling Alliance, Middle Susquehanna RiverKeeper, LightHawk, and others, images from the ground and air will be collected and included in the atlas project. The final product will be an invaluable tool to educate diverse audiences about the risks of natural gas development on Pine Creek, the Susquehanna watershed, and our public lands.

Near and far – for people, the planet, and precious watersheds like Pine Creek – there’s so much to do. Please consider becoming a FracTracker recurring monthly donor. Your gesture warms our hearts, nurtures our work, and sows hope –with invaluable information, tenacious solidarity, and the unstoppable spirit of love.

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

Drilling on PA state lands

Energy development is happening on your state lands, Pennsylvania

Decisions to drill or mine on public lands, however, are often extremely complicated.

By Allison M. Rohrs, Saint Francis University, Institute for Energy

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has historically been, and continues to be, home to an abundant array of energy resources like oil, gas, coal, timber, and windy ridgetops. Expectedly, these natural resources are found both on publicly and privately held land.

In Pennsylvania, the bulk of public lands are managed by two separate state agencies: The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which manages the state’s forest and park system, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), which manages the state’s game lands. Both of these state agencies manage oil, gas, and coal extraction as well as timbering on state property. Interestingly, neither of the agencies have utility-scale renewable energy generation on their land.

Some of Pennsylvania’s best wind resources can be found on the mountain ridges in the Commonwealth’s state forests and game lands, however, all proposals to build utility-scale wind farms have been denied by state agencies.

(Note: there are other state and federal agencies managing lands in PA, however, we focused our research on these two agencies specifically.)

Surprised to see that state lands have been greatly developed for different fossil industries but denied for wind energy, The Institute for Energy set out on a yearlong endeavor to collect as much information as we could about energy development on PA public lands. Using formal PA Right to Know requests, we worked with both DCNR and PGC to examine development procedures and management practices. We reviewed hundreds of available state agency reports, scientific documents, and Pennsylvania energy laws and regulations. We also worked with FracTracker Alliance to develop interactive maps that depict where energy development has occurred on state lands.

After a comprehensive review, we realized, like so much in life, the details are much more complicated than a simple yes or no decision to develop an energy project on state lands. Below is a brief summary of our findings, organized by energy extraction method:

Land/Mineral Ownership in Pennsylvania

One of the most significant issues to understand when discussing energy resources on state lands is the complexity of land ownership in Pennsylvania. In many instances, the development of an energy resource on publicly owned land is not a decision, but instead an obligation. In Pennsylvania, property rights are often severed between surface and subsurface ownership. In many cases, surface owners do not own the mineral rights beneath them, and, by PA law, are obligated to allow reasonable extraction of such resource, whether it be coal, oil, or gas. In Pennsylvania, approximately 85% of state park mineral rights are owned by someone other than the Commonwealth (severed rights).

Fee Simple - Mineral rights on state lands

Legal Authority to Lease

It is critical to note that DCNR and PGC are two entirely separate agencies with different missions, legal structures, and funding sources. This plays a significant role in decisions to allow oil, gas, and coal development on their properties. Both agencies have explicit legal authority under their individual statutes that allow them to lease the lands for mineral extraction. This becomes more of an issue when we discuss wind development, where legal authority is less clear, particularly for DCNR.

Oil and Gas Extraction

Oil and gas wells have been spudded on state parks, state forests, and state game lands. The decision to do so is multifaceted and ultimately decided by three major factors:

  1. Mineral ownership of the land,
  2. Legal authority to lease the land, and
  3. Potential impacts to the individual agency.

There is currently a moratorium on new surface leases of DCNR Lands. Moratoriums of such nature have been enacted and removed by different governors since 2010. Although there are no new lease agreements, extraction and production is still occurring on DCNR land from previously executed lease agreements and where the state does not own the mineral rights.

The Game Commission is still actively signing surface and non-surface use agreements for oil and gas extraction when they determine the action is beneficial to achieving their overall mission.

Revenues from the oil and gas industry play a significant role in the decision to drill or not. Both agencies have experienced increasing costs and decreasing revenues, overall, and have used oil and gas development as a way to bridge the gap.

Funds raised from DCNR’s oil and gas activities go back to the agency’s conservation efforts, although from 2009 to 2017, the State Legislature had directed much of this income to the state’s general fund to offset major budget deficits. Just this year, the PA Supreme Court ruled against this process and has restored the funds back to DCNR for conservations purposes.

All revenues generated from oil and gas development on state game lands stays within the Game Commission’s authority.

Along with positive economic benefits, there remains potential health and environmental risks unique to development on these public lands. Some studies indicate that users of these public lands could have potential exposure to pollution both in the air and in the water from active oil and gas infrastructure. The ease of public access to abandoned and active oil and gas infrastructure is a potential risk, as well. On the environmental side, many have argued that habitat fragmentation from oil and gas development is contradictory to the missions of the agencies. Both agencies have independent water monitoring groups specific to oil and gas activities as well as state regulated DEP monitoring. The potential negative effects on ground and surface water quality is an issue, however, mainly due the vast size of public lands and limited dwellings on these properties.

Use the map below to explore the PA state parks, forests, and game lands that have active oil and gas infrastructure.

Oil and Gas Wells on State Lands in PA


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Coal Mining

Thousands of acres of state forests and game lands have been mined for coal. Like oil and gas, this mineral is subject to similar fee simple ownership issues and is governed by the same laws that allow oil and gas extraction. DCNR, has not signed any virgin coal mining leases since the 1990s, but instead focuses on reclamation projects. There are coal mining operations, however, on forest land where DCNR does not own the mineral rights. The Game Commission still enters into surface and non-surface use agreements for mining.

In many circumstances, mining activity and abandoned mines were inherited by the state agencies and left to them to reclaim. Environmental and health impacts of mining specific to state land are generally attributed more to legacy mining and not to new mining operations.

Acid mine drainage and land subsidence has destroyed rivers and riparian habitats on these lands purposed for conservation.

The ease of public access and limited surveillance of public lands also makes abandoned mines and pits a dangerous health risk. Although threats to humans and water quality exist, abandoned mines have been noted for actually creating new bat habitat for endangered and threatened bat species.

Originally, we sought to quantify the total acreage of public lands affected by coal mining and abandoned mines; however, the dataset required to do so is not yet complete.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is currently in the process of digitizing over 84,000 hand drawn maps of mined coal seams in PA, an expected 15-year project.

Today, they have digitized approximately 30,000. The static map below demonstrates the areas with confirmed coal mining co-located on state lands:
Public lands and coal mining map - PA

Renewables

The discussion about renewable energy development in PA is almost as complex as the fossil industries. There are no utility-scale renewables on state owned land. Both DCNR and the Game Commission have been approached by developers to lease state land for wind development, however all proposals have been denied.

Even when DCNR owns the surface rights, they still cite the lack of legal authority to lease the land for wind, as their statute does not explicitly state “wind turbines” as a lawful lease option.

The Game Commission does have the legal authority to lease its land for wind development, but has denied 19 out of 19 requests by developers to do so, citing many environmental and surface disturbances as the primary reason.

Infographic regarding state land potential for wind energy

The development of wind projects in PA has slowed in the past five years, with only one new commercial wind farm being built. This is due to a variety of reasons, including the fact that many of windiest locations on private lands have been developed.

We estimate that 35% of the state’s best wind resource is undevelopable simply because it is on public land.

Like all energy development, wind energy has potential environmental and health impacts, too. Wind could cause habitat fragmentation issues on land purposed for conservation. The wind energy industry also has realized negative effects on bird and bat species, most notably, the endangered Indiana bat. Health impacts unique to public lands and wind development include an increased risk of injury to hunters and recreators related to potential mechanical failure or ice throw off the blades. Unlike fossil energies, however, wind energy has potential to offset air emissions.

We estimate that wind development on PA public lands could offset and estimated 14,480,000 tons of CO2 annually if fully developed.

Commercial wind turbines are currently being installed at hub heights of 80-100 meters where the annual average wind resource is 6.5 m/s or greater. The following map demonstrates areas of Pennsylvania where the wind speeds are 6.5 m/s or greater at 100 meters, including areas overlapping state lands, where no utility scale development has occurred.

PA Wind Potential on State Lands


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Additional Renewables

Biomass is organic material, such as wood, that is considered renewable because of its ability to be replenished. The harvesting of such wood (timber) occurs on both DCNR and PGC lands and provides funding for these agencies.

Small-scale wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass projects do exist on PA public lands for onsite consumption, however no renewables exist on a commercial or utility scale.

Both the fossil and renewable energy industries are forecasted to grow in Pennsylvania in the years to come. The complex decisions and obligations to develop energy resources on PA public lands should include thoughtful management and fair use of these public lands for all energy resources.


For more information and details, check out the entire comprehensive report on our website: www.francis.edu/energy.

This work was supported by The Heinz Endowments.

Shale Gas Development on Public Lands

By Mark Szybist and George Jugovic, Jr., PennFuture Guest Authors

Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) and FracTracker Alliance have collaborated to create a unique GIS map that enables the public to investigate how shale gas development is changing the face of our public lands. The map allows viewers to see, in one place:

  • Pennsylvania’s State Forests, Parks and Game Lands;
  • State Forest tracts containing active oil and gas leases;
  • State Forest areas where the oil and gas rights have been “severed” from the surface lands and are owned by third parties;
  • State Forest lands that are to be protected for recreational use under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act;
  • The location of unconventional shale gas wells that have been drilled on State Forest and State Game Lands; and
  • The boundaries of watersheds that contain one or more High Quality or Exceptional Value streams.

The goal of this project was to develop a resource that would highlight the relationship between unconventional shale gas development and public resources that the State holds in trust for Pennsylvania’s citizens under Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. It is our hope that the map will be useful to citizens, conservation groups and others in planning educational, advocacy, and recreational activities.

The Public Lands Map


A full screen version of The Public Lands Map can be found here.

Background

Public lands held in trust by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for citizens of the state are managed by various state agencies and commissions. The vast majority of State lands, though, are managed by just two bodies – the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). Under Act 147 of 2012, the Department of General Services has the authority to lease other lands controlled by the state. In recent years, DCNR and the PGC have made liberal use of their powers to lease State lands for oil and gas development.

DCNR: State Forests, State Parks, and Publicly Owned Streambeds

The DCNR manages approximately 2.2 million acres of State Forest lands and 283,000 acres of State Park lands, as well as many miles of publicly owned streambeds. The Conservation and Natural Resources Act (CNRA) authorizes DCNR to develop oil, gas and other minerals under these lands, so long as the state controls those mineral rights. In some cases, separate persons or entities own the surface of the land and mineral rights. Where DCNR does not control the mineral rights, the owners of the oil and gas have the ability to make reasonable use of the land surface for mineral extraction, subject to restrictions in their property deeds.

Before the start of the Marcellus era, the DCNR leased about 153,268 acres of State Forest lands for mineral development. These leases largely allowed the drilling of “conventional” shallow vertical gas wells. Between 2008 and 2010, the DCNR, under Governor Ed Rendell, leased another 102,679 acres of public lands for natural gas development – but this time the leases were for the drilling of horizontal wells in “unconventional” shale formations using high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

Following the lease sale, DCNR published a report on October 26, 2010 that stated any further gas leasing of State Forest Lands would jeopardize the sustainability of the resource. As a result, Governor Rendell signed Executive Order 2010-05, which placed a moratorium on the sale of any additional leases for oil and gas development on lands “owned and managed by DCNR.

On May 23, 2014, Governor Tom Corbett revoked Governor Rendell’s moratorium, and issued a new Executive Order that allowed the issuance of additional leases for gas development beneath State Lands so long as the leases did not entail “additional surface disturbance on State Forest or State Park lands.” Ultimately, Governor Corbett’s DCNR did not enter into any leases under the new Order. However, between January 2011 and January 2015, Governor Corbett’s DCNR did issue leases for gas extraction beneath a number of publicly owned streambeds, which, according to the Post-Gazette, raised $19 million. Governor Corbett’s DCNR also renewed at least one State Forest lease that otherwise would have expired.

On January 29, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf issued another Executive Order on the matter, which re-established a moratorium on the leasing of State Park and State Forest lands “subject to future advice and recommendations by DCNR.” The Order allows for the continued leasing of publicly owned streambeds. As of the publication of this blog, the DCNR is fighting two lawsuits concerning the leasing of the lands it manages, one by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation and one by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Drilling in Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Pete Stern 2013

Drilling in Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Pete Stern 2013.

PGC: State Game Lands

The PGC manages more than 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands that it may lease for gas development under the Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife Code. The PGC can also exchange mineral rights beneath State Game Lands for “suitable lands having an equal or greater value.” To date, the PGC has entered into surface and non-surface leases (technically, cooperative agreements for the exercise of oil and gas production rights) for natural gas development totaling 92,000 acres, of which about 45,000 acres were leased since 2008.

Land and Water Conservation Fund Act Lands

The LWCF Act is a federal law administered by the National Park Service (NPS) that authorizes federal grants to state and local governments for “outdoor recreation.” When a state accepts money for a recreational project, it agrees to protect the recreational value of the area supported by the grant. If the state later decides to take or allow actions that would “convert” parts of the protected area to a non-recreational use (1) the state must seek prior approval from the NPS, and (2) the NPS must perform an environmental assessment of the proposed conversion under the National Environmental Policy Act. The NPS may approve a conversion of LWCF-supported lands only if those lands will be replaced with “other recreation properties of at least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location.”

Between 1978 and 1986, Pennsylvania received three LWCF grants (Project Numbers 42-00580, 42-01235, and 42-01351) to support recreational opportunities on State Forest lands. Most of the money was used to improve roads in various State Forests to improve access for hunters, hikers and anglers. The LWCF layer on the Public Lands map represents those areas that Pennsylvania agreed to protect in exchange for these grants.

In 2009 and 2010, Pennsylvania entered into leases opening up about 11,718 acres of LWCF-protected areas to unconventional gas development. On the map, these areas can be highlighted by selecting “Land and Water Conservation Fund Lands” and “SF Lands – DCNR Leases”; the purplish, overlapping areas represent the leased LWCF lands.

Governor Corbett’s DCNR refused to recognize that shale gas development on public lands constituted a “conversion” under the LWCF Act. The Sierra Club was the first to identify this problem in a 2011 letter to the NPS and the DCNR. That letter requested, among other things, that the NPS formally determine the extent to which DCNR leasing of LWCF-protected State Forest lands has violated the LWCF Act. Nearly four years later, the NPS has yet to determine whether drilling and fracking of unconventional gas wells and construction of the necessary support structures constitutes a “conversion” and loss of recreational opportunities under the LWCF Act.

Old Loggers Path

Old Loggers Path, a favorite among hikers

A Note on the Map Layers

The sources of the GIS layers in the Public Lands map are explained in the “Details” section of the map. For the most part, PennFuture and FracTracker obtained or created the layers from public sources and through open records requests to the DCNR. In all cases, the layers came from the DCNR with a disclaimer as to the accuracy of the data and a warning about relying on the data.

GIS layers that are not currently on the map, but that this project hopes to add, include:

  • State Game Lands that have been leased for drilling;
  • State Park and Game Lands where the oil and gas rights have been “severed” and not controlled by the State;
  • Publicly owned streambeds that the State has leased for oil and gas development;
  • Public lands containing areas of significant ecologic value; and
  • Compressor stations, natural gas and water pipelines, and fresh water and wastewater impoundments.

Persons having access to this data are invited to contact PennFuture or FracTracker.

Severed rights and leased lands in PA state forests

Leases and Severed Rights in PA’s State Forests

A few years ago, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the agency responsible for state park and state forest lands throughout Pennsylvania, published maps on their website showing which state forest lands had been leased for the purpose of unconventional oil and gas exploration and development.  Not only has that page been taken down, but the data are also not among the hundreds of Pennsylvania-specific datasets available on the Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA), to which DCNR is a key contributor.

This data does still exist though, and it was provided to the FracTracker Alliance from DCNR upon request, along with data showing areas of the state forest where unconventional oil and gas rights are owned by the state, which is not always the case.  However, this fulfillment of our data request came with some strings attached:

  1. I understand that the accuracy of this data set and its boundaries cannot be guaranteed and should not be considered precise.
  2. I will not distribute raw data to other entities outside the scope of this request.
  3. I will annually provide the Bureau of Forestry with a status update of the project activities and findings.  If the project is abandoned, I will provide the Bureau of Forestry copies of the available information from the project.
  4. I will provide the Bureau of Forestry with copies of draft reports, articles, publications and so forth that result from this analysis.
  5. If requested, I agree to supply the Bureau of Forestry with copies of data analysis.
  6. I understand that the Bureau of Forestry or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is not relinquishing any rights or interests with this agreement.

Obviously, this ties our hands with regards to making the data available for download, either through the download section of our site, or through ArcGIS Online, but we feel as if the scope of our request was worded in such a way as to allow us  to produce a map of these layers, and make that available for public viewing.  Readers interested in obtaining similar data will have to contact DCNR directly, until the agency decides to release the data regarding Pennsylvania’s public lands without conditions.

We have combined this data with drilling data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, so that we can finally take a closer look at drilling on public lands in Pennsylvania, including an approximation of which wells are drilled on lands have been leased by the state, and which by third parties.  So with all appropriate disclaimers, here is that map:


Drilled unconventional wells in Pennsylvania and control of mineral rights on state forest land. To access full controls, such as legends, layer controls, and layer descriptions, please click the expanding arrows in the top-right corner of the map.