New study promotes habitat-based development
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Recent use of renewable and cleaner energy is resulting in less negative impact on the environment, says a new study from The Nature Conservancy. But the emerging industries should do a better job of maintaining habitat.
The report from the Virginia-based, nonprofit conservation group estimates that despite recent improvements, about 40 percent of Pennsylvania's largest and most ecologically valuable forest areas could see serious impacts from energy development.
Natural gas wells, wind turbines and energy harnessed from wood biomass and electric and gas transmission lines are having less negative impact on Pennsylvania's economy and landscape than traditional fossil fuels, the report said.
Further, many rural communities are experiencing rapid economic and job growth due to the installation of Marcellus Shale natural gas wells. The conversion to natural gas is slowing the rise in greenhouse emissions, the study said, by replacing carbon coal and oil.
In addition, renewable energy from the installation of wind turbines is helping to reduce toxic gas emissions by harnessing wind, which is both inexpensive and plentiful.
While these results are beneficial, they are not without cost, said the report, and Pennsylvania's forests and wildlife are paying for it. Forests, fresh water, rare species and recreation on unprotected lands stand to be adversely affected. In a recent analysis of aerial photographs, the Conservancy estimated that 3,500 acres of forest have already been cleared and 8,500 acres of habitat could be destroyed as a result of recent energy development.
Nels Johnson, deputy director for The Nature Conservancy's Pennsylvania Chapter, said the Conservancy has presented its findings to energy developers, government agencies and conservation groups in hopes of helping to reduce the cumulative impact of energy development in Pennsylvania.
"Our goal is to make sure that natural habitats become part of the equation, in terms of where and how energy development takes place," he said.
To assist energy developers in protecting the landscape, the Conservancy has mapped all of the forest patches in the state that exceed 100 acres and hold high conservation values.
"If gas companies know how those patches are distributed on the landscape, we hope they can use that information to site and locate their well paths, infrastructure roads and pipelines in a way that minimizes clearing and fragmentation of those larger patches," Johnson said.
This partnership is necessary, he said, for Pennsylvania to continue to reap the benefits of energy development while preserving the forests that are a hallmark of the state.
"Ultimately, we've got to work with energy companies," he said. "The energy development is not going to stop. The question is, can we make sure that natural habitats are integrated into how the planning is done, how regulatory decisions are made and how companies think about what they're doing."
First Published November 21, 2010 12:00 am