Well pad development in Tioga County, New York, will create extensive forest disturbance, Nature Conservancy study finds, after modeling impact of hydrofracking with GIS mapping tools

ALBANY, New York , February 14, 2012 (press release) – A new, first-of-its-kind study released by The Nature Conservancy illustrates the wide range of possible impacts on forests between the smallest and largest build-out scenarios for well pad development. The study focuses on the potential cumulative impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing (“hydrofracking”) on forests in Tioga County, in New York’s Southern Tier, and provides a better understanding of the trade-offs that must be considered as New York continues to evaluate Marcellus Shale natural gas development.

The report An Assessment of the Potential Impacts of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) on Forest Resources considers the possible cumulative impacts of natural gas well development in one New York County, as an example of how an assessment of cumulative impacts to forests can be carried out. Tioga County was the one county selected for the analysis due to its location in the Marcellus Shale fairway and its proximity to active gas drilling in neighboring Pennsylvania counties.

The study uses innovative GIS mapping techniques to model the cumulative impact of high volume hydraulic hydrofracking on natural gas for forest resources, the analysis considered and then modeled the number and distribution of well pads expected to be constructed, natural land cover, and new road infrastructure in Tioga County. This first-of-its-kind analysis looks at the potential impacts for a range of possible development scenarios from the lowest to the highest as projected by the Department of Environmental Conservation. The report calls for cumulative assessments based on a range of build-out scenarios.

Among the findings of the report:

  • The build-out assessments shows that forest disturbance due to hydrofracking will be extensive, as almost none (1%) of the large, intact forest patches in Tioga County will escape some level of impact from drilling.
  • Between 15% and 96% of the larger forest patches in Tioga County are predicted to have multiple well pads located on them.
  • The total distance of new roads projected for Tioga County to access well pads would equal the distance between Buffalo and Boston.
“New York has invested billions of dollars in protecting its forest resources, which supply clean water, clean air, recreation and tourism opportunities, and food for millions of New Yorkers. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to take the time to examine and understand the potential impacts of hydrofracking on nature and people,” said Bill Ulfelder, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in New York. “New York has the luxury of time to make good decisions based on a clear understanding of the trade-offs of hydrofracking. This cumulative impact study helps New York make those good decisions.”

The intent of the illustrative analysis is to help decision makers and the public understand the potential cumulative impacts of development on forest resources.

“Only with a full understanding of hydrofracking’s cumulative ecological impacts, rather than a site-by-site perspective, will New York State be able to take the necessary steps to avoid the risks posed by development,” said Cara Lee, lead for The Nature Conservancy’s New York Energy Team and principal author of the report.

Tioga County’s forest habitat has already experienced substantial fragmentation due to development. Nonetheless, its remaining forest patches are of a size and quality that provide substantial ecological, economic and social benefits including water quality protection, clean air, flood protection, wildlife habitat and diversity, and recreational opportunities.

“If we don’t take into account, the collective effects of hydrofracking, valuable forest habitat that remains in Tioga County is at risk of further degradation and fragmentation,” Lee said.

Every acre of forest clearing creates an associated edge effect that increases the amount of interior habitat lost when development cuts into a forested area. Several additional acres of habitat for plants and animals are lost to the noise, odor, light, invasive species and other ecological changes that can accompany development.

“This eye-opening report clearly illustrates why the state must conduct a full cumulative impact analysis, and create stringent regulations with stronger mitigation to protect intact forests before issuing any permits for drilling,” said Albert E. Caccese, executive director of Audubon New York. “Carving up the forests of the Southern Tier with roads and pipelines will negatively impact essential breeding habitat for many birds, including the Wood Thrush and Cerulean Warbler, as well as threaten the forest economy of the region.”

Much of New York’s $11 billion outdoor recreation and tourism industries are also dependent on the health of these forests. Forests store carbon and help mitigate extreme weather conditions and flooding, serving as a natural “insurance policy” in the face of climate change.

The Nature Conservancy has protected over 700,000 acres in New York State, working with a host of partners from state and federal agencies to private landowners.

“Drawing upon our 60-year history in New York,” said Ulfelder, ”we will continue to provide science-based information to inform policy decisions and regulations in order to avoid and minimize impacts to natural resources.”

To download An Assessment of the Potential Impacts of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) on Forest Resources or The Nature Conservancy’s comments to the Department of Environmental Conservation regarding hydrofracking in New York, visit www.nature.org/nymarcellus

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