By Thomas Minney, Director, The Nature Conservancy’s Central Appalachians Program
A traveler doesn’t need to spend much time on the winding highways that cross the Appalachian Mountains to know that this part of the country is in the middle of an energy revolution. Towering wind turbines cleave the air over mountain ridges. The derricks of shale gas wells stand brightly lit against the night sky. Coal trucks rumble over mountain roads.
A new study released today by The Nature Conservancy and the Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative presents the first comprehensive picture of what future energy development could look like in the Appalachians. Among the most important findings:
*Nearly 7.6 million acres (an area larger than the state of Massachusetts) of new energy-related development may expand across the Appalachian region by 2035.
*An estimated 5.3 million acres (roughly the size of New Jersey) of this new energy-related development is most likely to occur in forested areas.
*More than 150 watersheds are at high potential risk for development – watersheds that produce clean water for major cities and communities.
Coauthored by Nature Conservancy scientists Judy Dunscomb, Jeffrey Evans, and Joseph Kiesecker, the study uses data on energy resources from state and federal agencies to model energy development potential for wind, shale gas, and coal in a 15-state region.
It incorporates input provided by the energy industry, regulators, and other researchers. A web-based mapping tool shows where areas with a potentially high likelihood of energy development may overlap with important natural resources and associated benefits, such as municipal drinking water supplies.
What’s happening in the Appalachians isn’t isolated: booming development has become familiar in many parts of the world as global energy demand has increased by more than 50 percent in the last half-century.
This demand is expected to continue its steep upward trajectory, and with this growth we’ll see energy’s influence on the landscape grow – with a footprint covering nearly 50 million acres in the U.S. alone by 2035.
Of course, large-scale energy development has been familiar in the Appalachians since at least the mid-1800s, but several factors are intensifying the demands on this region’s resources: new technologies have opened previously untapped supplies of natural gas, the desire for renewable energy is driving a wind energy boom, and concerns over future energy security is encouraging the full development of our domestic energy resources.
How we choose to meet these demands will have significant implications both for nature and human well-being.
The Appalachian region is a global hotspot for plant and animal diversity, with some of the most diverse, intact, and connected temperate forests and freshwater streams in the world.
Appalachian rivers are intricately linked to the drinking water of millions of people in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and Eastern United States. And the region is an important rest and recreation area for people in the region and beyond.
Despite the critical importance of these natural resources, we have not, as a society, considered the cumulative impacts of current and future energy development to forests, streams, and other habitats.
Each wind farm, gas well, or coal mine is considered individually, one at a time. Neither regulating agencies’ nor industry’s current practice looks across a region to consider the big picture.
This study provides us that big picture.
Compared to the study area the estimated energy development acreage may not seem huge, but this future development is not likely to be evenly distributed, but instead will be highly concentrated in mountainous portions of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
Neither do these energy sources overlap. Instead, potential wind development in the Appalachians is most likely along forested ridgelines of the Allegheny Front and Blue Ridge mountains. And while coal is most abundant in the Cumberland Plateau, most of the shale gas development is occurring farther north in the Allegheny Plateau.
What can we do with this information?
Our hope is that this report will stimulate new discussions among conservation organizations, policy makers, regulators, industry, and the public on how to protect essential natural resources while realizing the benefits of increased domestic energy production.
This report complements other tools that can help influence how development unfolds. For example, Tamara Gagnolet of The Nature Conservancy’s Central Appalachians Program has worked with research organizations and gas companies to create a unique mapping tool that can help reduce overall environmental impacts related to the placement of well pads, roads, and pipelines on the landscape. The tool will be available to guide gas operators, regulators, and land managers toward more environmentally sensitive decisions about infrastructure placement.
We’re also developing a suite of science-based recommended conservation practices to guide landscape-scale planning, reduce noise and light pollution, improve stream crossings, and encourage less harmful road and pipeline development.
This new Appalachian-wide study, unprecedented in its scope and scale, shows where likely future energy development overlaps with important natural resources.
By pinpointing these overlaps, we hope to catalyze productive discussions about how we meet our energy needs while maintaining biological diversity and the ecological values that this diversity provides to people.
We want to bring land management agencies, energy companies, and policymakers together to examine and minimize impacts on natural resources over wide geographical areas in the long-term with the goal of avoiding impacts wherever feasible and minimizing impacts that cannot be avoided.
We don’t have to wait until there is a crisis. We can do this better. We have the science and the technologies available to figure out solutions that will sustain both people and nature in the Appalachians for generations to come.