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A Geographic Model to Assess and Limit Cumulative Ecological Degradation from Marcellus Shale Exploitation in New York, USA

John B Davis, State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany; Sage College of Albany
George R Robinson, State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany


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When natural resources are exploited, environmental costs and economic benefits are often asymmetric. An example is apparent in the environmental impacts from fossil fuel extraction by hydraulic fracturing. So far, most scrutiny has been focused on water quality in affected aquifers, with less attention paid to broader ecological impacts beyond individual drilling operations. Marcellus Shale methane exploitation in New York State, USA, has been delayed because of a regulatory moratorium, pending evaluation that has been directed primarily at localized impacts. We developed a GIS-based model, built on a hexagonal grid underlay nested within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EMAP system, to examine potential cumulative ecological impacts. In a two-step process, we characterized > 19,000 hexagons, each sized to approximate the footprint of one drilling site (2.57 km²), using ecological attributes; we then developed a method for apportioning resource access that includes assessments of cumulative ecological costs. Over one-quarter of the hexagons were excluded as off-limits on the basis of six criteria: slope suitability, regulated wetland cover, protected-land cover, length of high-quality streams, mapped road density, and open water cover. Three additional criteria were applied to assess the estimated conservation vulnerability of the remaining sites: density of grassland birds (North American Breeding Bird Survey), percent core forest (Coastal Change Analysis Program), and total density of all state-mapped streams; these were determined and used in combination to rank the 14,000 potentially accessible sites. In a second step, an iterative process was used to distribute potential site access among all towns (sub-county governments) within the Marcellus Shale Formation. At each iteration, one site was selected per town, either randomly or in rank order of increasing vulnerability. Results were computed as percent cumulative impact versus the number of sites committed and compared to a most-conservative selection process (ranked by statewide conservation vulnerability). Random selection with proportional distribution by town resulted in larger cumulative ecological impacts, but rank-ordered selection by town was in many ways comparable to selection by statewide conservation vulnerability ranking. These outcomes allow for a political solution for managing resource access fairly, based on a balanced geographic distribution of economic benefits, coupled with an underlying scientific basis for assessing the ecological costs that are publicly shared.

Key words

Core forest, hexagon land-cover grid, hydraulic fracturing, Marcellus Shale formation, natural resource sharing, New York State, sensitive species and ecosystems

Copyright © 2012 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087