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Forest Disturbance Processes

Understanding Effects of Oil and Natural Gas Development on Appalachian Forests

[photo:] Natural Gas well on the Fernow Experimental Forest, summer 2009, immediately after restoration of the site. Research Issue

Development of domestic energy sources is a high priority in the United States for both economic and strategic reasons. One of these sources is a previously inaccessible natural gas reserve located in the mid- and northern-Appalachian region. Forests in these areas have either already experienced significant alteration or still have the potential for much change related to the continued natural gas development. Found in bedrock in this region, the Marcellus shale formation has been called a “super giant” gas reserve and is estimated to contain 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Consequently, gas-well drilling and pipeline construction have increased significantly in the Appalachians during the past several years and are expected to increase throughout the next several decades. New research is critical to ensure that as these energy resources are developed and as technologies for extracting them evolve, forests continue to provide key goods and services such as clean air and clean water, timber, wildlife habitat, and reservoirs of biological diversity.

At the Fernow Experimental Forest, the issue is not just academic. A gas well, pipeline and associated infrastructure were established on the Fernow Experimental Forest in 2009 to develop privately held mineral rights. Lessons learned from this experience have led to a broader focus of regional ecological issues associated with this new domestic energy source.

Our Research

Over the past 60 years, Forest Service scientists have conducted a wide range of research in the northeastern forests. Our existing data, the expertise of our scientists, and our ability to form effective and constructive partnerships with diverse stakeholders make the Northern Research Station a natural leader in examining the ecological effects of oil and natural gas development. Accordingly, the Station is pursuing research that focuses on:

  • Landscape-scale cumulative analysis and modeling of direct and indirect effects of potential and realized oil and gas development patterns.
  • Analysis and modeling of the cumulative effects of potential and realized gas and oil development on water quality and quantity.
  • Site-specific studies of direct and indirect effects on affected terrestrial and aquatic forest communities.
  • Enhanced communication, coordination, and science delivery with other agencies and organizations on related research.

Our initial research on oil and gas development has included:

  • Studied recovered hydrofacturing fluids, or flowback, to characterize flowback chemistry so that disposal can be carried out safely.
  • Investigated the alteration to mature forest habitat and bird responses to shallow oil and gas development in interior forests of Pennsylvania.
  • Conducted a case study of the effects of development of a natural gas well, associated pipeline, and ground application of recovered fluids on the natural and scientific resources of the Fernow Experimental Forest in West Virginia.
  • Initiated a baseline assessment of water quality prior to oil and gas development. The research will continue to document water quality in the area prior to oil/gas development, during oil/gas development, and following extraction activities.
  • Co-sponsored “Assessing the Environmental Effects of Marcellus Shale Gas Development: The State of Science” with the Pinchot Institute for Conservation in April 2011.
  • Co-sponsored the 2012 Goddard Forum at the Pennsylvania State University in April 2012 – “Oil and Gas Impacts on Forest Ecosystems: Research and Management Challenges.”
  • Studied cumulative effects of oil and gas development on forest productivity and composition using the LANDIS II landscape model.
  • Investigated surface water quality and aquatic indicators of stream health in areas with high and low levels of natural gas development.

Expected Outcomes

Although this area of research is in its infancy, even early results are expected to prove useful to the oil and gas industry, State regulators, and private, state, and federal land owners who have wells drilled and pipelines constructed on their property. Revisions to current Best Management Practices and the development of new BMPs are anticipated as some of the most important early results that this research will yield. Longer-term outcomes include a greater understanding of how gas extraction activities influence forest sustainability at the landscape scale, such as fragmentation of forests, patterns of and restrictions to wildlife movement, and the spread of invasive, non-native plants.

Research Results

Drohan, P.J.; Finley, J.C.; Roth, P.; Schuler, T.M; Stout, S.L.; Brittingham, M.C.; Johnson, N.C. 2012.  Oil and Gas Impacts on Forest Ecosystems: Findings Gleaned from the 2012 Goddard Forum at Penn State University. doi:10.10170S1466046612000300

Adams, Mary Beth; Edwards, Pamela J.; Ford, W. Mark; Johnson, Joshua B.; Schuler, Thomas M.; Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa; Wood, Frederica. 2011. Effects of development of a natural gas well and associated pipeline on the natural and scientific resources of the Fernow Experimental Forest. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-76. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 24 p.

Adams, Mary Beth; Ford, W. Mark; Schuler, Thomas M.; Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa. 2011. Effects of natural gas development on forest ecosystems. In: Fei, Songlin; Lhotka, John M.; Stringer, Jeffrey W.; Gottschalk, Kurt W.; Miller, Gary W., eds. Proceedings, 17th central hardwood forest conference; 2010 April 5-7; Lexington, KY; Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-P-78. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 219-226.

Adams, Mary Beth. 2011. Land application of hydrofracturing fluids damages a deciduous forest stand in West Virginia. Journal of Environmental Quality. 40: 1340-1344.

Edwards, Pamela J.; Tracy, Linda L.; Wilson, William K. 2011. Chloride concentration gradients in tank-stored hydraulic fracturing fluids following flowback. Res. Pap. NRS-14. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 14 p.
Holz, Daniel J.  2009.  Factors affecting erosion on a natural gas pipeline in the central Appalachians.  M.S. Thesis, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL.

Moseley, Kurtis R.; Ford, W. Mark; Edwards, John W.; Adams, Mary B. 2010. Reptile, amphibian, and small mammal species associated with natural gas development in the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia. Res. Pap. NRS-10. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 14 p.

Holz, Dan; Edwards, Pamela; Williard, Karl; Schoonover, Jon. 2007. Factors affecting erosion on a gas pipeline in the central appalachians. In: Proceedings, American Water Resources Association 2007 Annual Conference. 2007 November 12-15; Albuquerque, NM. 1 p. Abstract.

 

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Pamela Edwards, US Forest Service Northern Research Station – Research Hydrologist
  • Mary Beth Adams, US Forest Service Northern Research Station – Research Soil Scientist
  • Scott Stoleson, US Forest Service Northern Research Station – Research Wildlife Biologist

Research Partners

Last Modified: June 7, 2013