New U.S. Forest Service scientific report documents permanent effects of drilling

A new report by scientists with the U.S. Forest Service documents the effects of development of a natural gas well and associated pipeline on the natural and scientific resources of the Fernow Experimental Forest in West Virginia.

The scientists observed and documented the impact of a well in a highly monitored and observed area of public land, and they found very worrisome effects. Imagine what might be happening on land where no one is thought to be observing.

Among their findings from just one well:

  • Loss of control of the drill bore resulted in drilling fluid spewing uncontrollably into the air -- turning foliage brown, causing leaves to fall off trees, and killing vegetation. Impacts were still evident several months later.
  • Waste --presumably fracking waste --that had been deposited in pits was sprayed into the air to dispose of it. This led to severe browning of leaves, dead twigs, and trees dropping leaves early--even trees that had not been in direct contact with the fluids (possibly by uptake of the waste from the soil by roots). The following year the scientists observed dwarfed foliage, discolored foliage, and bark sloughing.
  • Almost 100 trees were cut down to make room for the wellpad, and another 115 trees were observed to be harmed in some way -- from the driling of just one well.
  • Silt fences installed for erosion control were ineffective and allowed significant erosion from the wellpad.
  • There was significant road damage including ruts, obliterated ditches, and erosion. The damage was substantially more than that caused by logging trucks, perhaps because the natural gas company trucks weigh twice as much as fully loaded logging trucks. 
  • There are many unknowns--including incomplete knowledge of the connectiveness within the karst geology of the region and the potential for Increased fragmentation of habitat--that require much more research before the impacts can be fully understood.
  • Many impacts are unexpected. According to the scientists: "Unexpected impacts, however, were perhaps more important, and because they could not be carefully controlled or planned for, are less likely to be mitigated successfully."
  • Bottom line: "the areas directly impacted were changed permanently" (except for some of the eroded areas), and had to be removed from the forests's long term research projects.

This study carries important lessons, in particular for those who claim that current regulations for oil and gas production are sufficient to ensure safety and protect the environment.