Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A New Use for the Monongahela National Forest

Gas Development Pending for Spruce Knob and the High Allegheny

In July 2009, the Monongahela National Forest released a map of candidate drilling areas for natural gas exploration. The mineral rights of these areas are being sought after by members of the gas industry and were scheduled for the public auction block in mid-September. The auction has now been rescheduled for December or early in the Spring of 2010.

These candidate drilling areas occupy thousands of acres in the northern Monongahela National Forest, from the border of Dolly Sods in the north to a few miles south of Spruce Knob. The proposed areas border The Mountain Institute on three sides and provide the headwaters of many vast and vital watersheds. Within the proposed areas are the headwaters of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the headwaters of the Cheat River, which flows into the Monongahela and eventually the Ohio River. Other sensitive features of this area are the headwaters of Big Run, Upper Seneca Creek, and Lower Seneca Creek. These are three of the four remaining intact watersheds for reproductive brook trout populations in West Virginia.

The mineral rights of these areas have been available for some time, but not desired for drilling operations of the past. For many years in West Virginia, companies having been extracting natural gas from the Oriskany Sandstone formation. These rigs drill deep into earth to tap into gas pools within the formation. The new development source of natural gas is one that has, until recent years, been economically unattainable. It is found up to a mile and a half below the earth’s surface, sealed in the cracks and crevices of Marcellus Shale. Its extraction is a rather new undertaking and is quite different than the natural gas operations of the recent past. This is the expected method of development for these areas.

The Marcellus Shale drilling footprint is considerably larger than traditional Oriskany wells and possesses a major component unique from its predecessor: large water volume fracture treatments, or hydro-fracturing. These two issues seem to put Marcellus drilling operations in a league of their own, thus requiring updated regulatory standards, more stringent enforcement, and new water treatment and disposal technology. Hydro-fracturing requires millions of gallons of fresh water, usually extracted from local bodies of water, mixed with a corporation’s own chemical recipe. Components of this “frac” fluid, by law, are viewed as proprietary and do not have to be revealed. However, it is known that the fluids are high in salinity and possess a wide variety of carcinogenic and environmentally harmful chemicals.

Furthermore, the fluid underground is in contact with many rocks and minerals and from them gains hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and radioactivity. This fluid is one of the most serious concerns of the Marcellus drilling boom. It permanently contaminates excessive amounts of our fresh water when created and threatens to contaminate even more through its disposal.

The disposal of these fluids is very expensive for the gas industry. The frac fluid can be injected into the ground for storage, hauled to wastewater treatment plants, or reused. The underground storage is a concern due to the possibility of contamination of groundwater or seepage into waterways. Currently, there are only two permitted Underground Injection Control wells in West Virginia, few water treatment plants capable of adequately treating this type of fluid, and not enough treatment facilities to handle hydro-fracturing volumes.

The brief history of Marcellus play includes a number of accidents and careless decisions from the gas industry, resulting in environmental catastrophes. New York and Pennsylvania have already learned, from experience, that the affects of hydro-fracturing can be detrimental to freshwater resources when not managed properly. As a result, they are dealing with dead streams and unhealthy drinking water. So far, West Virginia has few of these experiences with natural gas development. Other concerns associated with Marcellus drilling operations include non-stop engine noise, heavy traffic, and long term occupancy.

The Monongahela National Forest is treasured by the citizens of West Virginia and by all of its visitors. To jeopardize the public land trust in favor of a few private interests would most certainly devalue the treasure and generate opposition from user groups such as The Mountain Institute, as well as the general public. A considerable portion of the proposed drilling area is used consistently during TMI programs and is viewed by thousands of students and adult visitors each year. This area is promoted by TMI as a pristine “wilderness” and the definitive example of a healthy and thriving ecosystem. Marcellus Shale drilling in the vicinity of TMI could severely limit the program area and affect the everyday lives of those who live at and visit the Spruce Knob Mountain Center.

Recently, Forest Service officials held a meeting at the Monongahela Forest Headquarters in Elkins, WV. The Forest Supervisor and other USFS officials met with representatives from TMI, Trout Unlimited, and Friends of Blackwater Canyon to discuss the impacts that drilling operations could have on TMI programs and the surrounding forest and watersheds. TMI plans to continue monitoring this situation, as well as the streams and forests of this area.

Until proper water treatment technology and enforceable regulations are in place, the mistakes made and damage caused in New York and Pennsylvania could be repeated in West Virginia. Until then, The Mountain Institute cannot support Marcellus Shale drilling in the Allegheny Highlands of the Monongahela National Forest.

by Joshua Nease

Photo by Edward Todd, istockphoto.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Where was TMI when MNF let drilling proceed on the Fernow EF in clear violation of ESA, NEPA rules and CWA?