You are here: NRS Home  / Research Programs / Forest Disturbance Processes / Climate Change and Events / Understanding Effects of Oil and Natural Gas Development on Appalachian Forests

Forest Disturbance Processes

Understanding Effects of Oil and Natural Gas Development on Appalachian Forests

[photo:] The initial stages of equipment installation on a natural gas well pad in a forest.Research Issue

Development of domestic energy sources became a high priority in the United States in the early 2000s for both economic and national security reasons. Natural gas became a much more important source of energy domestically and globally during and since that time because new technologies incorporated with traditional hydraulic fracturing processes created opportunities to access geologic formations that hold extensive gas reserves that were previously inaccessible. Two of the most important formations, Marcellus shale and Utica shale, are located in the central- and northern-Appalachian region.

Unconventional gas well development to release and pipeline construction to transport natural gas have increased significantly in the Appalachians during the past decade, and are expected to continue to grow throughout the next several decades. Furthermore, conventional oil and gas wells are common throughout this region and continue to expand. New research is critical to ensure that as these energy resources are developed, and technologies for extracting them evolve, clean air, clean water, timber, wildlife habitat, biological diversity, and other ecosystem services can continue to be provided.

At the US Forest Service’s 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. Pipeline construction nearby on the Monongahela National Forest is also ongoing. Case studies and research opportunities have resulted and have provided valuable insights into understanding potential problems associated with natural gas development and transport, as well as the development of techniques and recommendations to reduce future problems. 

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 Northern Research 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:

  • Studied recovered hydrofacturing fluids, or flowback, to characterize flowback chemistry to better inform decisions on land disposal of flowback
  • 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 methane and other chemicals of interest in potable well water on the Monongahela National Forest and some adjacent private lands prior to proposed gas development in the area
  • 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 relatively new, the studies 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. For example, studies of erosion immediately following pipeline construction and continuing into the restoration period illustrated the importance of soil particle stabilization and surface protection prior to revegetation. Recommendations related to other erosion control measures and to seed mix considerations also resulted. Case studies have provided insights that have led to recommendations on changes to some practices to better protect water quality, and the development of new BMPs is anticipated. 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

Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa A.; Edwards, Pamela J.; Schuler, Thomas M. 2018. Establishment of native species on a natural gas pipeline: the importance of seeding rate, aspect, and species selection. Res. Pap. NRS-30. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 11 p. https://doi.org/10.2737/NRS-RP-30.

Edwards, Pamela J.; Harrison, Bridget M.; Williard, Karl W.J.; Schoonover, Jon E. 2017. Erosion from a cross-country natural gas pipeline corridor: the critical first year. Water, Air, & Soil Pollution. 228(7): 232. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-017-3374-9.

Edwards, Pamela J.; Harrison, Bridget M.; Holz, Daniel J.; Williard, Karl W.J.; Schoonover, Jon E. 2014. Comparisons of sediment losses from a newly constructed cross-country natural gas pipeline and an existing in-road pipeline. In: Groninger, John W.; Holzmueller, Eric J.; Nielsen, Clayton K.; Dey, Daniel C., eds. Proceedings, 19th Central Hardwood Forest Conference; 2014 March 10-12; Carbondale, IL. General Technical Report NRS-P-142. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 271-281. .

Thomas, Emily H.; Brittingham, Margaret C.; Stoleson, Scott H. 2014. Conventional oil and gas development alters forest songbird communities. The Journal of Wildlife Management. 78(2): 293-306.

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
  • Melissa Thomas-VanGundy, US Forest Service Northern Research Station - Research Forester
  • Scott Stoleson, US Forest Service Northern Research Station – Research Wildlife Biologist

Research Partners

Last Modified: June 13, 2018