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December 18th, 2013

Wildlife and Pipelines: Like Water and Oil

By Francesca Buzzi

At this point, we’ve seen plenty of faulty logic and shameless greenwashing on many issues associated with drilling and fracking for oil and natural gas. However, we recently came across a pro-drilling argument that would be laughable if it weren’t such a scary example of the lengths the industry is willing to go to confuse the public about drilling and fracking.

Natural gas pipelines, the argument goes, are beneficial to both wildlife and the public because they provide new habitats and recreation areas. This argument is not only wrong, but deliberately misleading. We’ve already written about pipeline problems and eminent domain, but there’s another damaging side to pipelines that doesn’t get mentioned as often.

In the Marcellus region of Pennsylvania, around half of the well pads are located in forested lands, and around a quarter are in core forest—woods that are more than 300 feet from a road or other clearings that form a forest edge. As drilling and fracking for oil and gas continues, an estimated 60,000 miles of new pipelines could be constructed in Pennsylvania alone to connect new well pads to customers. Depending on the size of the pipeline, construction requires a continuous cleared path 30 to 200 feet wide. 

These clearings cut through essential core forest habitats, creating migration barriers for small animals and amphibians, opening up the land to invasive species and industrial pollution, and damaging water quality.

The pro-pipeline argument tries to assert that these clearings create a good habitat for animals, but in fact the new forest edges can instead form what is called an ecological trap. In this case, an individual deer might benefit from new foraging areas, but the clearings also attract predators that prey on deer and their young.

This small benefit—and even that is questionable due to the ecological trap—is outweighed by the harm that pipelines inflict on core forest ecosystems. Clearing trees can make nearby streams too warm for fish to breed. Rare or threatened species like the northern flying squirrel, some salamanders, the Appalachian cottontail, and over 19 percent of the world’s scarlet tanager population rely on core forest in Pennsylvania for survival. Right now, we risk losing the native species that make our forests so unique.

Pipelines can also put human lives at risk, and rural pipelines are often overlooked. Just last month, an entire town in Texas was evacuated after a drilling crew accidentally hit a natural gas liquids pipeline, causing an explosion. In Pennsylvania, no one knows how many pipelines exist underground, making pipeline accidents more likely. It’s ironic then, that pipeline supporters claim that rural pipelines are a boon to landowners by providing new hiking, cross-country skiing or snowmobiling trails.

The drilling and fracking rush is splintering forested landscapes and committing us to ecological degradation and climate pollution for years to come. Pro-drilling arguments like these just reaffirm our mission to expose the industry’s spin—the facts give us yet another reason to ban fracking.    

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