Conserving Nature With Fracking

(REUTERS/Les Stone)

Brian Seasholes Policy Analyst, Reason
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If you want to understand how extracting oil and natural gas using the process known as fracking conserves biodiversity, habitat and open space, just ask Ron White, a dairy farmer in northeast Pennsylvania, and his son, Tyler. They have a well on their land that produces natural gas due to fracking. “If it wasn’t for the natural gas probably we wouldn’t still be farming—milking cows twice a day, doing what we love, it would be a whole different ballgame and chances are I probably wouldn’t be on the farm still,” Tyler states in the movie FrackNation.

So what does the Whites’ situation have to do with conserving nature, especially when we constantly hear from opponents of fracking that it is bad for the environment and from the oil and gas industry that fracking is not as bad as opponents claim? The greatest threat by far to biodiversity, habitat and open space is habitat destruction, and fracking helps keep farms and ranches likes the Whites’ viable and intact—instead of being sold off, subdivided, developed, and stripped of assets like timber, all of which results in habitat destruction. Fracking conserves nature because even though it impacts some habitat, it allows far more land to stay intact.

“Cows, Not Condos” is a popular slogan that also applies to fracking because it’s better to keep land in agriculture and lose small amounts to fracking than to lose large amounts of habitat when farms and ranches are sold and developed. These realities and trade-offs are hard for most Americans to understand because they live in urbanized areas and often think simplistic solutions, such as banning fracking, help the environment.

But the realities for people like Ron and Tyler White, who have to make a living off their land, not treat it like a quaint rural theme park, are more complex and nuanced, including that their lives are often financially precarious because they work long hours for little pay, bad weather and fluctuating commodity prices can be devastating, federal and state regulations are increasingly onerous, and they tend to be “land-rich, cash-poor”, which means their assets consist largely of illiquid land, not liquid stocks, bonds, cash, pensions and 401(k) plans.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the average annual net income per farm in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where the Whites live, is $16,171. The poverty line for a family with two parents and two kids is $23,283. Although one parent on a farm sometimes has another job, most farmers in Pennsylvania’s shale gas regions would still eke out a marginal existence were it not for royalties from natural gas.

But if the financial pressures grow too great, and people like the Whites can’t make a living from agriculture, farmers and ranchers are then forced to sell off their land, either whole or in pieces, which often results in more intensive, less ecologically-friendly forms of land use. Not only do farmers and ranchers lose, but so, too, does biodiversity. “When these places sell, they don’t sell to another rancher who does it just a little different,” John O’Keeffe, an Oregon rancher, observes about what happens when agricultural land is sold, in a Sand County Foundation report. “They’ll sell to somebody that wants to ranch, but he’s got to chop off several parcels at development prices to make his ranch cash flow. So habitats that are up in these mountain meadows are going to have a hunting lodge, a couple dirt bikes and some dogs, a power line going in, and another road. It’ll take away from the intact landscape needed for ranching and wildlife.”

If you want to witness the ecological devastation that results from banning fracking, just travel about 30 miles north from the Whites’ Pennsylvania farm to Chenango County, New York where Bryant La Tourette is a landowner. Through their support of New York’s 2014 fracking ban, “the wealthiest New Yorkers have accomplished what no other state would even consider, by reducing upstate to the level of a third world country by forcing hardship onto generational land,” La Tourette states. “We keepers of that land can no longer afford to pay the taxes and are being literally brought to our knees.”

La Tourette provides a heartbreaking litany of the steps rural New Yorkers take when they can’t earn money from the natural gas under their land. “The first defensive action for purposes of paying our taxes and hanging onto our land is to timber it extensively, almost to the point of clear cutting.” Loggers especially target large, lucrative trees that are also often the most ecologically valuable. Next, landowners dismantle historic stonewalls and sell the stones to landscapers. Then, people sell their natural gas rights for pennies on the dollar in attempts to make a little money.

Last, in desperation, landowners sell their land, either in a single chunk or in pieces, which results in more intensive, less eco-friendly forms of land use. “The danger of [the natural gas] industry destroying the area pales in comparison to what so-called environmentalists are doing every day to destroy the future of upstate New York by frustrating natural gas development that would actually save farms and open space,” La Tourette concludes.

Meanwhile, opponents of fracking in New York promote solar farms as an environmentally friendly alternative to natural gas wells. A typical solar farm in upstate New York covers about 25 acres. The Nature Conservancy estimates 8.8 acres is cleared, including for new roads, for an average forested Pennsylvania gas well site, but this estimate does not apply to all of the state’s well sites because all sites are not forested or require new roads. If fracking were allowed in New York, a similar amount of land per well site would be impacted. And yet solar farms are considered “green” energy, even though they impact more than three times as much land as fracking?

Life involves trade-offs, and decisions often have unintended consequences. Those who truly care about conserving biodiversity, habitat and open space should take a closer look at the tradeoffs of fracking, including the unintended consequences of banning fracking and that fracking has significant ecological benefits.