We turn onto the gas company improved access road and head into one of Pennsylvania’s many tracts of public state forest land. Our SUV bounces and clatters along through dense stands of mixed deciduous and evergreen forest, gravel from the road kicking up into the truck’s undercarriage. Thanks to the condition of the road, which is without question the most well-maintained state forest access road I’ve ever ventured along, we’re able to carry on at a brisk pace. Nevertheless, we continue on into the forest for 10 or 15 minutes before we reach our destination, an Anadarko natural gas well pad in Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek Valley. From those of us who haven’t previously seen first hand the real-world impacts of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania, there’s a collective, palpable sense of awe, though for altogether unexpected reasons.
As an angler and a conservationist, environmentalist or any other label I might choose to identify myself as someone who puts a great deal of value on preserving and protecting wild and natural places, especially wild and natural waters, there are a myriad of reasons to be concerned about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) on these places. The typical reflex is to contemplate the sensational: overturned trucks carrying fracking wastewater, mountain creeks drawn dry by unregulated industry water withdrawal, pristine streams choked by out-of-control sediment resulting from erosion of disturbed forest parcels and so on. And, while all of these threats are real, and have occurred in Pennsylvania to some extent or another, what I encounter when we arrive is in stark contrast to these horror stories.
Instead, as the forest cover breaks and we come upon the first of many sites we’ll visit that day, I am greeted by what is — at least as far as appearances go — the first in a series of immaculately maintained facilities. Signage, identifying the responsible company, potential dangers and other details, is extensive and easy to understand. Pipelines, as they emerge from underground, are rust free and cleanly painted. Well pads are seemingly perfectly flat and level, with nary a stray rock where their edges meet the neatly groomed grass that buffers the pad from the forest stands that surround them. Even the site we visit where drilling is actively underway, which is in considerably more disarray, is better than expected. It is, for lack of a better term, a pleasant surprise.
Yet, despite my initial sense of relief, any developing notion of “hey, this ain’t so bad” is almost immediately replaced by “good lord, this shit is huge.” And I’m not alone. Several others who hadn’t previously seen a fracking well pad are also taken aback. Once we’ve moved on and seen first-hand not only well pads, but a compressor station, fluid storage tanks and several water impoundment ponds (both fresh and produced water), the reality sets in that the scale of what is going on in the woods of Pennsylvania is hard to imagine until you’ve witnessed it with your own eyes and is probably widely unknown to most people who would likely care about it.
This is, again, deep in the woods of Pennsylvania. Pine Creek Valley is one of the most remote areas of the state, known for its large areas of relatively undisturbed wilderness.
Pristine mountain streams with healthy wild trout populations — such as Slate Run and Cedar Run — course through the valley and wind their way into Pine Creek, which itself is known as one of the state’s premier trout fisheries and recreational waterways. Hunters frequent the valley’s state forest and state game lands in search of deer, turkey and other game. Birders travel long distances to spy the numerous bald eagles which call these woods home. Less than 40 miles away, the largest herd of elk (yes, elk) east of the Mississippi roams freely. Over four hours from Philadelphia and equally as far from Pittsburgh, this is not the suburbs. This is the middle of nowhere.
The average well pad, which may contain up to a dozen well heads, is 4 square acres. That is roughly the size of a Wal-Mart parking lot. The footprint of the sites we visit with fluid storage tanks dwarf the well pads, and the compressor station feels nothing short of a small town of humming and grinding equipment.
The first water impoundment pond (“pond” being a misnomer which should more aptly be replaced with “lake”) we encounter is so large that I can’t fit it into a single frame using the widest angle lens in my camera bag, and is filled with fracking wastewater, the fences containing it adorned with “no smoking” signs due to the contents of the pond.
And yet we're far into otherwise undisturbed forest, miles from the nearest paved road.
Of course it no longer feels like it. Any sense of being in the wilderness has been removed by the clamoring of equipment and hum of electricity. The forest canopy that would otherwise serve to prevent our own knowledge of being on a ridge top is gone, pushed far back by the clear cutting that preceded development of these sites. Despite the clean and well-maintained nature of all the sites we visit, these areas are — unquestionably — developed.
In two days time we make our way to a handful of well pads and their accompanying infrastructure (the aforementioned compressor station and fluid storage tanks, an unknown number of criss-crossing pipelines and two water impoundment ponds). The breadth of all of it remains hard to believe. When I try to take in that the handful of wells I visited are just miniscule fraction of the more than 7,000 wells that have been drilled in Pennsylvania and the associated infrastructure that accompanies them, the scale becomes almost incomprehensible. Add in the fact that it has been estimated that up to 50,000 wells could be drilled in the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania by the time it is built out, and I no longer know what we’re talking about.
Weeks later what sticks with me is my ignorance. Not only about the scale of shale drilling, but my perceptions of what the typical drilling site would reveal when seen first hand. The people of Pine Creek Valley, several of which described undisturbed forest land and clean rivers as “a matter of local pride”, lack my prior ignorance as they see the impacts of gas development on an ongoing basis.
Yet, despite their reverence for natural places and even with the boom of gas development in Pine Creek Valley now years behind them — once always-full hotels and motels are lush with vacancies, previously hard-to-find tables at the few restaurants that serve breakfast are readily available, and the local roadways that were formerly overwhelmed with countless semi-trucks hauling loads water, gravel and other materials (approximately 1200 truckloads of material are required for every well pad) have quieted down — opinions on gas drilling are mixed.
During a conversation about the waters of Slate Run and Pine Creek with Slate Run Tackle owner Tom Finkbeiner, when asked to identify the biggest impact he’s seen from gas development, Tom responded “young people with more money to spend on expensive rods and gear, because now they’ve got good jobs.” And although he was careful to point out that he feels gas development “can’t happen everywhere” and must be monitored and undertaken with great care, the impact of his answer — even if it was partially tongue-in-cheek — can’t be dismissed when you consider that this is a man whose livelihood is entirely dependent on the health of the local streams and rivers.
The fact is that development in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region, as well as the Marcellus Shale region of other states such as New York, is a considerably complex issue. In areas which historically lack economic development, sources of wealth, jobs and tax revenue are often welcomed with open arms. Haste to welcome these developments can often lead to serious and long-reaching consequences. Still, the hope for these regions is that there is a way to do things right, a way to have it all. If there is, they key to getting there will be pragmatism. And pragmatism doesn’t come without knowledge. And patience.
Unfortunately, the reality for Pennsylvania is that much of the development of the gas industry that’s occurred thus far has done so without either of these things. And, while there’s a definite sense that things are getting better and that some of the gas companies are trying harder to do the right thing, there’s also the feeling that these companies aren’t likely to do anything they’re not mandated or pressured to do. The truth is that the companies that have and continue to drill in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region have done a lot of learning on the job. Learning, as it often is done, from mistakes. Some of them big ones.
As someone who thinks of myself as — or at least wants to think of myself as — a steward of wild places, I realize I haven’t been doing my job. Despite my efforts to stay informed about development in my state’s Marcellus Shale region, I haven’t been doing enough. If I had been, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so uninformed about some of the realities of shale gas drilling. I would have had more knowledge.
As anglers, we are part of a very large, motivated and powerful demographic. And, as a result of the fact that what we love is dependent on the preservation and protection of wild places and clean, natural waters, we have an obligation — at the very least to ourselves — to watch over them. As such, we must understand the threats these places face by learning about them, by being voracious about the information readily available to us, by seeking out what isn’t and by sharing it with other anglers.
Those of us who fish have what is a potentially loud voice that has, thus far, remained startlingly quiet regarding what role the natural gas industry should play in the future of the wild and natural places we hold dear. It is high time we educate ourselves about what is facing us, formulate a cohesive opinion of how we feel this moving force should co-exist with our rivers and streams — and the lands that feed them — and speak up. The potential price of remaining ignorant, silent or both is simply too high.