New York State
Ornithological Association

For the birders and birds of the Empire State

ConservationPosted 7/7/09
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Gas Drilling and Birds
Andy Mason, NYSOA Conservation Committee
Published in the January 2009 issue of NY Birders

New York State is on the verge of major development of an energy source that could have negative impacts on birds in the region. The Marcellus shale formation that underlies much of the Southern Tier, Finger Lakes and Catskill regions is estimated by geologists to contain 168 trillion to 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas throughout its entire extent, which includes portions of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Although it is not yet known how much gas will be commercially recoverable, to put this quantity into context, New York State uses about 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year.

Oil and gas drilling has been carried out in the western part of NY State for many years. Geologists have known the potential of Marcellus shale for natural gas, but the rock has been considered too deep and too tight to profitably develop. With rising energy prices, and new drilling techniques, energy companies now want to tap this source.

Chemical additives to the hydrofracking water improve penetration and gas production. Much of the fluid is returned to the surface and often contains naturally-occurring materials, as well as the added chemicals. The fluid may also pick up radioactivity from the shale.

The primary environmental concern over the drilling is possible contamination of ground water through escape of hydrofracking fluids into aquifers. Other issues include noise and visual impacts of the drilling itself, and construction of pipelines to transport the gas.

Issues related to birds and other wildlife include large withdrawals from surface waters such as lakes, wetlands and streams. This could damage these water bodies and reduce their value as habitat for water birds. Also, storage and disposal of the hydrofracking fluids pose a threat if stored in open lagoons. There are many cases of birds being oiled or tainted from waste lagoons in oil production areas elsewhere. There likely will be habitat fragmentation from gas development with road construction, the drilling areas, and pipeline construction. This may well take place in grassland areas and affect at-risk bird species.

The NY State Department of Environmental Conservation regulates drilling in the state. The agency is preparing a Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) to examine issues involved with the Marcellus shale drilling that go beyond current review of drilling. A final scope for the SGEIS will be finalized this winter, with a draft SGEIS expected to be available for public review and comment by early spring 2009.

Birders and birding organizations will need to be involved in review of the SGEIS to ensure that potential impacts to birds from drilling are identified and addressed in the document and in any regulations DEC imposes on drillers.

For more information on Marcellus shale drilling and the state’s review process, visit the DEC website.

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