Science and Environmental Writing 2014
Hydraulic fracturing is a recent technological advance that allows gas companies to extract natural gas from shale rock formations that are located several thousands of feet within the earth. The process and subsequent environmental effects of the fracturing of the rock have raised environmental, political and social questions around the country, from the federal to local level of governments to advocacy groups. Some examples of issues include potential ground-water contamination, habitat destruction, noise pollution and economic impacts in the communities that support the drilling operations.
To get a better understanding for just how fast the natural gas industry is growing in the United States, domestic production has increased 22 percent between 2005 and 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The Marcellus Shale in the northeast is the largest known deposit of natural gas in the U.S. with other significant deposits in the Barnett Shale in Texas, the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas, the Woodford Shale in Oklahoma, and the Haynesville Shale in Louisiana (Goho, 2012). This boom in natural gas drilling is creating a demand for access to the land that holds these valuable gas deposits, whether it is private or publicly owned.
State-owned public lands are parcels of land owned by the state government, meaning they are also belong to the residents of the state. Since state governments are some of the largest owners of land in the United States, it is no surprise that many state lands contain natural gas deposits in shale formations that can be reached through the hydraulic fracturing process. However, this is not the first time that publicly owned state lands have been pursued by industry and corporations for natural resources. For years in many states across America, state forests have been leased by state governments to timber companies for controlled harvest of raw timber. Throughout the twentieth century, domestic oil deposits on public lands drilled by oil companies through mineral leases. The same leasing principle of public lands has also been used extensively for livestock grazing in wildlife and habitat conservation areas. The same trend started to appear in the early 2000s as hydraulic fracturing became more popular and natural gas companies started making moves to secure the rights to large deposits across the country (Brady, 2012).
There are many different types of lands that states hold in ownership and their specific classification depends on the state. State lands can be placed in broader categories:
• State parks – Open to the public for outdoor recreational activities
• Wildlife management areas – Open to recreational activities such as wildlife
watching and hiking, also permitting controlled hunting and some water activities.
• State fisheries and hunting grounds – Controlled wildlife areas under strict control
by permits and habitat management
• State forests – Large parcels of forest open to the public for non-motorized
recreational activities in specified areas (Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Oil and Gas Management, 2005)
The issue of state leasing of public lands for hydraulic fracturing and the subsequent laws that set the standard for regulations on these lands affect a broad range of stakeholders for various reasons. It is important for the public to understand what types of public lands are being leased for drilling and what the original plans for those publicly owned lands were -- whether it be open space, state parks, hunting grounds, camp sites or conservation lands. The public should also have a firm understanding of the mineral rights leasing process so people are aware of what public officials are making important decisions about public land uses. It is also the public’s right to know what type of regulations gas companies must follow while leasing these lands and what state agencies are responsible for enforcing these regulations. Also, because there is no definitive conclusion about the environmental impact of the hydraulic fracturing process, the public should know what lands are being put at risk for potential future contamination.
As to the importance of this topic for the students of Lehigh University, it is crucial that they are informed as citizens of voting age and residents of their home states. If they choose to vote in state elections, their vote could count toward what laws are passed about the use of state lands for hydraulic fracturing and the regulations that will be in place on those drilling sites. For some students, this topic could hit closer to home if public lands are being leased near their physical home. The possibilities of water and noise pollution are a reality that land owners have had to face in many states. In addition to understanding what it happening in their home state, it is important to have knowledge of what other states are doing to regulate hydraulic fracturing on public lands and if these laws are more or less strict than what is happening in their home state.