With President Barack Obama announcing a new climate change strategy this week that includes increased harvesting of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, it’s time to take a closer look at the impact this process has on our national parks.
The question becomes even more urgent with the publication of a new study this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that drinking water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania within a kilometer of high-volume hydraulic fracturing—known as fracking—showed methane concentrations six times as great as wells farther away.
Fracking operations in northeastern Pennsylvania are in the vicinity of two national parks—Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River. These, however, are not the only two parks in the United States in danger of being negatively affected by fracking operations.
That’s the point driven home by a report recently released by the National Parks Conservation Association, in which NPCA presents five case studies involving seven national parks located within the vicinity of current drilling sites.
In addition to the two Pennsylvania parks, the report looks at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, Glacier National Park in Montana, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and Obed Wild and Scenic River in Kentucky and Tennessee.
The rivers provide some important insights, because of concerns for fracking’s impact on water quality.
In the Upper Delaware River area, where the Marcellus shale provides access to natural gas, chemical spills from fracking operations have involved toxic substances like hydrochloric acid and “fracking fluid,” a combination of fresh water, sand and small percentages of chemicals used in the fracking process. Creeks and streams near fracking sites in the Delaware River Basin have tested positive for methane gas, and an 8,000-gallon fracturing fluid spill killed fish and other aquatic wildlife in a Pennsylvania creek near Dimick, Pa. A 2011 well blowout discharged 21,000 gallons of fracking fluid and sand into a state forest in Ward, Pa.
“Fracking would also introduce sediment into the small creeks that feed the Delaware River, diminishing water quality,” the report notes. “As one of the last undammed major rivers in the Eastern United States, the Delaware River provides important spawning habitat for American shad (Alosa sapidissima) and American eels (Anguilla rostrata). The river also provides habitat for several rare and endangered freshwater mussels. All could suffer from sedimentation, chemical contamination, and diminished water flows associated with fracking.”
The Big South Fork and Obed River parks have shared land with privately owned oil and gas wells for many years. New wells recently were drilled into the Chattanooga shale on the Cumberland Plateau, but most have been there since the 1970s and 1980s. The NPCA report notes that new exploratory fracking wells are now being drilled near the park boundaries. “Both parks are rife with waterways that sustain a host of plants and wildlife, including ten species of fish, mollusks, and plants that have been listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act,” the report says. “Anything that degrades this watery ecosystem poses a serious concern, which is why fracking deserves close scrutiny.”
Given the findings published this week about the methane content in Pennsylvania drinking water wells, and the potential for increased drilling around and even in the park, these warnings become more urgent.
“Federally supported technology has helped our businesses drill more effectively and extract more gas,” said President Obama in his speech at Georgetown University on June 25. “And now, we’ll keep working with the industry to make drilling safer and cleaner, to make sure that we’re not seeing methane emissions, and to put people to work modernizing our natural gas infrastructure so that we can power more homes and businesses with cleaner energy.”
What the President defines as part of the solution may become part of the problem for national parks.