Pennsylvania is—and long has been—a beautiful and pleasant place to live, to work, and to play. No doubt everyone hopes it will remain so for the future. But there are troubling signs that changes are underway to diminish our Commonwealth’s appeal for the long term.

By now, most Pennsylvanians are aware that improved gas extraction technology has made it possible to exploit pockets of natural gas buried deep underground. The result has been an explosion in hydraulic fracturing—commonly called “fracking”—operations across the Marcellus Shale, which lies under most of our state. News reports and op-ed commentary over the past five years have celebrated the economic returns and deplored the environmental costs of fracking across Pennsylvania. Lawsuits are being filed almost daily over the human health risks posed by energy exploration and over allegations of deceptive financial practices in gas leases and royalty payments.

This focus on human concerns has largely overlooked one enormous issue: the impact of vastly expanded fracking operations on Pennsylvania wildlife.

All about the birds and the beasts. Fish, too.

It should never be forgotten that the flourishing of Pennsylvania’s wildlife population is not only good in itself, it is vital for the state’s economy. Our fish and game populations are essential components driving tourism and the hunting and fishing industry in our state. Any threat to their wellbeing is an imminent threat to our own.

The expansion of fracking poses exactly that threat, in at least two ways:

  • Habitat destruction. Setting up extraction wells means cutting away woodlands, building access roads, erecting drilling pads and pipelines, and ultimately pulling millions of gallons from surface waters to inject as fracking fluid. This devastates crucial living areas and migration routes for dozens of wildlife species, say ecologists who have seen the pattern in other states. Because none of these species are (at least currently) in danger of extinction, government agencies are not sounding the alarm. But is it really acceptable to sacrifice the white-tailed deer population in Pennsylvania just because deer are plentiful in Wisconsin?
  • Environmental contamination. The air, soil, and water is under assault from fracking. Contaminants ranging from complex hydrocarbons to heavy metals to inorganic acids have been released by accident or as a result of handling fracking fluids and wastewater. The Environmental Protection Agency has simply dropped the ball on this, refusing to follow its own rules to prevent danger to wildlife from fracking-related pollution. And the danger is real. One scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey, reporting on a fracking contamination incident in Kentucky, has noted that “entire populations could be put at risk even with small-scale fluid spills.”

What wildlife loss means for Pennsylvania

If maintaining Pennsylvania’s natural wildlife resources is important, then we must work together to be more judicious about gas extraction policies here. That may not require adopting the proposal by state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Highland Park) to put all fracking activities on hold for an indefinite period. But with Harrisburg’s political leaders too eager to boost fracking regardless of the consequences, we need someone to step forward with a sensible compromise that protects our wildlife heritage.

Legal Lookout

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