As the Fracking Boom Spreads, One Watershed Draws the Line

October 26, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

After spreading across Pennsylvania, fracking for natural gas has run into government bans in the Delaware River watershed. The basins of the Delaware and nearby Susquehanna River offer a sharp contrast between what happens in places that allow fracking and those that do not.

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Photo credit: Gerry Dincher/Flickr. A wellhead in north-central Pennsylvania on a platform used for drilling natural gas.

Over the last several years, with the hydraulic fracturing technology in hand to extract natural gas from the tight formations of the Marcellus shale, the industry moved quickly and seemingly inexorably from West Virginia and across the prized geology of Pennsylvania. State maps that designate each well with a colored dot look as if a storm of confetti has blown up from Pennsylvania’s southwest, intensifying as it reaches the state’s rural and heavily forested northeast.

In 2008, the state produced only two percent of the country’s natural gas and the Gulf of Mexico 26 percent. By 2013 the percentages were nearly reversed: Pennsylvania produced 23 percent to the Gulf’s five percent. Now some 8,000 wells in Pennsylvania produce roughly 17 billion cubic feet of gas per day, and the expectation is that within the next decade new infrastructure will double those numbers, as well as add 60,000 miles of pipeline.

Only one area of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus has escaped the fracking storm — the portion that lies within the watershed of the Delaware River, the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi. Four years ago the gas industry was poised to spread into the Delaware River basin, which encompasses 13,000 square miles of land in four states. The industry had signed thousands of leases with watershed landowners. And although many of those landowners’ neighbors looked west at the industry’s growth in the Susquehanna River basin and wanted no part of it, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) was ready to give the go-ahead.

But in November 2011, with only two of the four states in the Delaware Basin in support of fracking, the DRBC abruptly withdrew its proposed regulations and instituted a moratorium. The fracking industry in the Pennsylvania portion of the Delaware basin was stopped in its tracks. In neighboring New York State, a decision earlier this year by the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo to prohibit fracking statewide also has foiled the industry — much to the chagrin of residents who hoped to cash in on hydraulic fracturing on their lands, and to the relief of those who feared fracking would industrialize the landscape and pollute their water and air. 

The contrast between the two watersheds — the fracked territory of the Susquehanna basin, and the unfracked of the Delaware basin — is sharp. Extensive areas of the Susquehanna watershed contain the well pads, drilling rigs, pipelines, and roads trafficked by large trucks supporting the industry.

By contrast, much of the Delaware River watershed remains extraordinarily well-protected. It still provides drinking water to 15 million watershed residents, more than half of those in New York City, which began tapping the upper Delaware River in 1945. The water runs unfiltered from the Delaware’s headwaters to the city’s taps, an amenity New York prizes and protects through ownership or easement of 130,000 acres of watershed. Since 1978, 73 miles of the upper Delaware have been protected as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. More than 100 miles of the river below that also are under various forms of federal protection.


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Photo credit: David Gonzalez/Yale e360. The Delaware watershed has undergone no fracking because of government bans.

Although New York State is unlikely to lift its ban on fracking, the Delaware River Basin Commission has indicated that it may someday open portions of the watershed to fracking, a move that would especially impact the Pennsylvania portion of the basin atop the Marcellus shale. But conservationists say that opening portions of the Delaware basin to fracking would be a serious mistake, given the relatively unspoiled nature of the upper river, the volatility of the oil and gas industry, and the increasing shift in the U.S. to renewable sources of energy.

“You cannot drill and frack without harming the environment and communities,” said Maya K. van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and head of the non-profit Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “You cannot look at the data and come up with a genuine belief that shale gas extraction can be done safely. We’re seeing what’s happened in the Susquehanna River basin and bringing that to the Delaware will devastate our communities and our river.”

While the Delaware basin is off limits — for now — to fracking, the effects of hydraulic fracturing in the forests and communities of the Susquehanna River watershed have begun to come into focus. 

In north-central Pennsylvania, a region known as the Pennsylvania Wilds encompasses 2 million acres of state forestlands — equal to the size of Yellowstone National Park — and dwarfing the forests of the Delaware River watershed. Traveling with researchers from Penn State University and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, I headed in September to the Tiadaghton State Forest. One of the foresters showed me two black-and-white aerial photographs taken of the forest and the surrounding area three summers apart. In 2010 only one or two pads can be seen. By 2013 there are dozens of white patches — drill pads — on the plateau, connected by pipeline rights of way.

This development occurred even as it was challenged by lawsuits and despite a 2010 moratorium on new drilling in officially designated state forestlands. That moratorium, lifted in 2014 by the Republican governor, was again reinstated this year by the state’s new Democratic governor. Of Pennsylvania’s 2.2 million acres of state forest, some 1.5 million acres lie atop the Marcellus shale zone. Of these, the state has leased 388,000 acres for drilling, the overwhelming majority of which has not been developed. The real development in the Pennsylvania Wilds and the Susquehanna watershed is taking place on private lands and forest.


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Photo credit: National Agriculture Imagery Program, USDA This aerial photo shows the growth of fracking well pads in Lycoming County in north-central Penn.

We passed well pads that each open up some four acres of forest. During the few weeks of actual drilling and fracking, these little 24-7 industrial complexes are loud, bright, and crowded with trucks and workers. (“If your camping trip coincides with the operation,” one of the foresters told me, “you’re not going to be too happy.”) The one I visited had been quiet for awhile. Pipes lay on a large stone pad, but otherwise it was empty. Next to it, a heavily reinforced structure housed the compressor that moves the gas out into the pipelines.

Fracking breaks up large areas of once-intact forest canopies, and, as Pennsylvania State University researcher Margaret Brittingham puts it, “Gas well development changes the landscape.” The critical loss, she says, is to core forest; that is, forest more than 300 feet from any road or disturbance. It’s important territory for songbirds and amphibians. The problem in the Susquehanna River watershed is that 96 percent of the habitat critical to core forest birds lies atop the Marcellus shale.

“The overlap between core forest and the Marcellus results in high vulnerability for this habitat,” says Brittingham. Tiadaghton State Forest, she says, has seen a loss of 9,242 acres of core forest.

This fragmentation of habitat, says Brittingham, alters the species diversity, mostly to the detriment of songbirds, whereas predators and some invasive species such as cowbirds thrive.

But while the effects of incursions into the state’s forestlands are being monitored — and now limited by a moratorium on new operations — the larger concern is that more than 90 percent of all the Marcellus fracking operations take place on private land. A study in one county, for instance, found that nearly twice as much core forest was lost to fracking on private land as on public land. Miles of pipelines, laid down in 100-foot-wide corridors cut out of private forestland, come under little, if any, scrutiny. In fact, if they don’t run through populated areas (within 220 yards of at least ten homes) they’re not regulated at all. 

Only the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has jurisdiction over drilling operations on private land, and then only on water resources. State agencies maintain that, aside from a few hundred complaints of private water wells damaged or contaminated by fracking, “initial water monitoring results have not identified any significant impacts due to shale-gas development.” The results, however, come from only a few years of monitoring, with no baseline data to make comparisons.

Anthony Ingraffea, of Cornell University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, considers these findings to be misleading at best. “What the [Susuehanna River Basin Commission] is looking at is large-scale changes over the entire river basin. But they’re missing all the local impacts that when the gas industry really gets going, You don’t drill that many holes in the ground without affected drinking water.”

Those local effects, says Ingraffea — who runs a website, PSE Healthy Energy, that consolidates peer reviewed studies on fracking effects — range from methane contamination, pollution of residential water wells, nitrogen oxide emissions that can increase local ozone levels, noise pollution, diesel emissions from fracking operations, and adverse health effects, as documented in a study released last week by Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Ingraffea also cites studies demonstrating the boom-and-bust nature of the gas industry economy, which can leave local governments to deal with new roads, higher crime rates, and stressed infrastructure. “Not to mention,” he says, “the global atmospheric effects of taking all the carbon out of the ground.”

Driving from the Susquehanna into the northern Delaware River watershed in Wayne County, Pennsylvania — where fracking is prohibited — the forests are less dense and corn and dairy farms dominate the hardscrabble lands of the plateau. An August 2015 report — released by the Washington, DC research firm CNA and commissioned by the Delaware Riverkeeper — predicted that if fracking in Wayne County follows the pattern of shale development in the rest of the state, the upper Delaware watershed could see some 2,000 wells on 300 to 600 well pads. Each “would result in 17-23 acres of land cover disturbance,” mostly due to new pipeline infrastructure, the report said.

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Photo credit: Famartin/Wikimedia Commons The Delaware Water Gap, one of several protected sections of the Delaware River.

The CNA report said that water withdrawals — fracking requires millions of gallons of water per well — and discharges could affect small streams during periods of low flow. Gas emissions could double Wayne County’s levels of the air pollutant, nitrogen oxide. Intensive fracking development in the upper Delaware basin would put 60 percent of the population — more than 30,000 people — at risk of adverse health effects, the report said. CNA also predicted that gas development could lead to a 5 to 10 percent reduction in core forest, which now covers 80 percent of the upper Delaware watershed.

“We protect water quality by protecting forest cover,” says Kristina Heister, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River. In an e-mail, she added that even beyond fragmentation’s impacts to streams and wetlands, drilling “represents a landscape-level impact that also affects the scenic values and wildlife/ecological values for which the river was designated under the Wild and Scenic River Act.”

In addition to the upper Delaware River’s special designations and protections, the lack of industrial and intensive residential development have helped keep its waters clean. In 2009 the New York City Department of Environmental Protection called fracking “incompatible” with its reservoir system, posing “unacceptable risks” to the city’s drinking water supply. In June of this year, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, after seven years of study, concluded that New York would prohibit all fracking statewide.

The Delaware River Basin Commission is not saying when it will lift the fracking moratorium. That it intends to do so seems evident from its website, which states that the commission’s program of monitoring is not designed to see if fracking should take place in the basin, but to “characterize baseline conditions . . . before the onset of natural gas development activities.” The commission says it is seeking “a path forward that provides for the development of a potentially valuable energy source while protecting the basin’s vital water resources.”

Gerald Kauffman, director of the Water Resources Agency project at the University of Delaware, considers it a fool’s errand. Kauffman and colleague Andrew R. Homsey calculated that the ban on drilling in New York State leaves only 2,577 square miles of Delaware watershed available to gas extraction. The value of that gas — calculated at higher 2012 prices — is $435 million a year, compared to “the $942 million annual value of the watershed’s river recreation, the $2.8 billion value of its drinking water and the $4.2 billion for its forest ecosystems.”

Peter Wynne represented the roughly 1,000 landholders of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance as they negotiated their leases with Hess Oil. But Wynne and landowners who hoped to reap wealth from royalties found themselves out in the cold as Hess, seeing no end to the stalemate and with the price of gas in free fall, relinquished the leases it held on lands in the upper Delaware.

Not wanting to live in a “hell hole” caused by environmental problems, Wynne says his group had earlier negotiated letters of agreement calling for Hess to use best-management practices, cause zero harm to their water and land, and to rehabilitate the land when drilling was complete. Now, without fracking royalties, he is concerned that the decline of the local dairy industry — the number of dairy farms has fallen from more than 400 to 60 — will force farmers to sell their land to real estate developers. The county will then end up, he predicts, with shopping malls instead of well pads, septic tanks instead of fracking retention ponds, and acres of development fragmenting just as much forest. “It boggles the mind,” he says.

For van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, it isn’t a matter of choosing between one evil and another. Those who benefit from clean waters downstream should help provide investment in upstream communities. And the watershed, she says, should be investing in clean energy alternatives.

Adds Ingrafeea, “The issue is global. In order to avoid the worst of climate change we know we have to leave a very substantial portion of the world’s hydrocarbons in the ground. Most of Pennsylvania’s hydrocarbons have been or will be drilled. Maybe the contribution we can now make is to take this place where there’s fossil fuel and decide to leave it in the ground.”

Tags: environmental effects of fracking, Fracking, shale gas plays, watersheds