Energy. Environment. Economy.

Researchers Wade Into Streams to Study Gas Drilling Impacts

Picture a map of Pennsylvania. Now picture dots for every new natural gas well.  The dots cluster in the northeast near Scranton, and in southwest, near Pittsburgh. These are the areas that have experienced the greatest natural gas development over the past couple of years. No state rules regulate how many natural gas wells can be drilled within a specific area. But researchers at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia want to know if heavy concentrations of these wells impact the environment.

Deep in the Susquehannock State Forest flows one of the headwaters of the Susquehanna river, a little stream about 3 to six feet wide running over gravel, surrounded by hemlocks, and wild flowers, and known as Horton Run. This is where the researchers, led by David Keller, start looking for fish.

“We’re expecting to see a brook trout, at least a few, we haven’t seen one yet. Oh, there we go, there he is, speak of the devil.”

Keller leads the team in counting and identifying salamanders, brook trout, crayfish and a tiny hammer-headed looking creature called slimy sculpin.

The team measures out one hundred meters of stream, and then put down nets on either end to trap any living creature swimming in the water at that moment. Then Keller puts on a large metal backpack he calls the “electrofish.”

The contraption, which sounds like a vacuum, puts a small charge into the water that slows down all the brook trout and crayfish long enough to be captured and put in a big bucket.

The study, which is funded in part by the William Penn Foundation, as well as by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, looks to see if drilling for natural gas has an effect on stream life, and if the water chemistry itself is impacted. Data is divided into three categories: sites near high density drilling, sites near medium-density drilling, and streams near no drilling activity.

Richard Horwitz is a senior biologist at the Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research. Horwitz says the researchers want to see whether drilling done according to all the current rules has any impact on stream health.

“We are not accident chasing here,” says Horwitz. “[We are] not looking for wells that have a history of violations, not looking for a spill.”

He says the Academy has a 60-year history of looking at how industrial activity impacts streams. But Horwitz says studying gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale may be the most controversial research topic he’s seen.

Knowing how tricky the politics of gas drilling are, the study team doesn’t even tell the field researchers which category of stream they are collecting samples from on a given day.

So far, a preliminary study of just 9 streams has already shown a statistically significant difference in aquatic life between streams in areas of no drilling and streams where nearby wells are numerous. Jerry Mead is a senior biologist with the Academy, and a lead researcher on the study.

“As the density of well pads increased, the number of types of stream insects decreased.

Researchers also found higher levels of water pollutants in areas of high density drilling. But the pilot study was just a small snapshot. Researchers now aim to test more than 50 sites. The Academy of Natural Sciences prides itself on conducting applied research that can be used by regulators, lawmakers and concerned citizens.

Andrea Kreit is one of the researchers on the team.

“They’ve got all of these proposed drill sites and I mean its like an explosion of activity up here. So I think knowing at what densities you may or may not start to see effects in the streams, and the water and the fish, its important.”

Pennsylvania lawmakers and regulators don’t seem to be talking about the density of wells.  The Governor’s recent proposal to update natural gas drilling rules in the Marcellus Shale does not mention well spacing. It does, however, recommend increasing the buffer between a well site and streams, rivers and lakes from 100 to 300 feet.

Similarly, the Delaware River Basin Commission’s proposed rules do not include well density, but there are setback requirements for waterways.

Pennsylvania lawmakers and regulators don’t seem to be talking about the density of wells. The Governor’s recent Marcellus Shale Commission’s report spends few words on the spacing of wells, though it does recommend increasing the buffer zone between a well site and the waterways. There are recommendations to increase the buffer zone between where the wells are located and the waterways. And the Delaware River Basin Commission has also proposed increasing buffer zones.

Some activists want regulators to include limits on well density. Others say it’s more important to enact strict buffer zones.

Tracy Carluccio is with the Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog which is lobbying the Delaware River Basin Commission to propose spacing requirements.

“Very few regulators have even thought about this. We think the lack of requirements in terms of spacing of gas wells is a huge oversight on the part of regulators. And it allows the industry to be in charge of that issue.”

The American Petroleum Institute recommends keeping wells away from sensitive surface waters if possible. John Felmy, a chief economist with API says the challenge is that the expansion of shale gas drilling in places like Pennsylvania is so new. And doing scientific research takes time.

By the time the researchers from the Academy of Natural Sciences conclude their study and publish their results at the end of 2012, hundreds, if not thousands of more wells may be drilled.


  • Dave Shadduck

    Yes, Gas Well drilling may well have an affect on our streams.
    Please do wake up to the pesticides & weed killers being sprayed on farm fields
    They are for sure having a serious affect on our PA streams
    Where there were 50 or more farmers on a stream and it had no problems
    Today there are only 2 farmers on that same stream and they are using pesticides & weed killers and the stream is dying.
    As well Claverack Electric Co and PENNDOT are spraying with 2-D-4 which was banned in Viet Nam because of the problems it caused.
    Check the Gaylord Creek which runs in both counties – it is nearly a dead creek.
    This means state & federal agency’s paid to protect us are loafing and not doing their jobs or do not know what their job is.
    These agency’s need to get to work & do their jobs or 100% of them be fired as they are just wasting taxpayer dollars and causing problems ( I will refer to the Chesapeake Bay organization and a part of them who should be fired)
    I’m talking about Bradford & Susquehanna Counties prior to gas drilling.

    • Rob Blye

      Why do you say that Gaylord Creek is dying? I am familiar with that creek and it is a state approved trout stream. what is killing it? There are certainly fewer cows in the creek than there used to be.

    • Anonymous

      Prior to drilling? Think about how they can possibly watch what the drillers are doing.  It’s going to take each and every person to report stream damage to every authority possible. We all need to monitor the best we can what is happening in areas where drilling is occurring.

  • Brian

    The problem with this type of study is that it is not specific enough to be of any use. The first question that comes to my mind is, “are you saying this is a construction runoff problem or a drilling problem?” Environmental groups will use this data to point to the dangers of O&G work; however this could be a construction problem that occurs anywhere there is development.

    Researchers need to be careful and truely think about the scope of thief experiments.

  • brian oram

    Can you send me a copy of the work plan, so I can figure out how they plan to study the impact of gas drilling on a stream. How are they controlling all the other variables? Simple changes in land-use change the quality of a stream -

    My question is this really a gas drilling issue or a development or land-use issue – “So far, a pre­lim­i­nary study of just 9 streams has already shown a sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in aquatic life between streams in areas of no drilling and streams where nearby wells are numer­ous” –

    How about the real control – watersheds or streams with the same level of impervious area and other development that is not related to the industry? How does these compare?

    We are scientists – no spin doctors
    send to

  • bsure

    I think that the commissions requirement of increasing a buffer zone from 100 ft. – 300 ft is an insult to our intelligence.

  • Guest

    Are they seriously asking for setbacks between wells?  Don’t they realize how much smaller the construction footprint is because they have multiple horizontal wells on each pad compaired to drilling vertical wells everywhere to cover the leased areas?

  • Janthonyiv

    There are a few ways to answer Brian’s questions. First of all, the team is drawing correlations between decreased stream biota and chemical/land use data. The chemical data will positively identify the drilling operations as the source. The land use data will show that the stream is negatively impacted by the land use changes that went into installing the rigs. In the real world, its impossible to set up perfect “experiments” where we are able control every aspect except for one “variable”. But, this isn’t always necessary. The stream data could be compared with data from “representative” sites. That is, sites of similar size, land use, stream flow, chemical makeup. Scientists are well aware that there are many land use activities within a watershed, but they are very familiar with which activities will most strongly affect stream biota, and which uses will manifest themselves in the chemcial data. They are also very well aware of the extent of certain land use activities within a watershed.

  • Fcfcfc


    This is a nice thing to do but it is really a joke. Every corporate interest is trashing our environment. Pick your abuser, Monsanto’s “roundup” ready  GMC’s, GAS, Oil and miners, the list is so long it is laughable.  We have soaked our house with gasoline, set it on fire and now are running around arguing whether it is burning. Man is no smarter than a virus, willing to kill the host even if it spells our own death.


    • briget shields

      “Like burning the furniture to heat the house!” not sure where i heard that but it was at a meeting about gas drilling.

  • briget shields  there are too many incidents of water contamination where drilling and other related industry is operating.  Why are we taking this kind of risk?  instead of moving forward before “it’s being done right.”   The risk of not being able to drink or even cook with water from your tap
    is what we are gambling with.  For me the risk is too high.  In my opinion it should be stopped before any more Americans are left without safe water.  There are risks with everything it’s true, but what is the measure of “risk” being used when considering to allow this industry into your community.

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