A State Agriculture Department spokesman presented an eye-opening report on the impact of shale gas production on one of the state’s foundational industry during Sunday’s session of the County Commissioners Assn. of Pa. (CCAP) Natural Gas Task Force in Hershey. Michael Smith, the department’s executive deputy secretary, said the impact will likely be “profound,” in both economic and environmental perspectives.
“The development of shale gas is bringing a transformative change to Pennsylvania, and that includes significant changes in agriculture,” Smith said. He pointed out that Pennsylvania has climbed from 12th in gas production to third, trailing only Texas and Louisiana, and has experienced a 1,200 percent increase in production since 2008. Some 38 percent of electricity generation is Pennsylvania comes from natural gas. The figure was 3 percent in 2008. There have been about 7,200 shale gas wells drilled statewide since 2008. Economists forecast the number will approach 30,000 over the next 15 years.
Smith said some farmers have already received significant lease payments and royalties for mineral rights and many more will benefit in the coming years. This has helped some of them stay in business and acquire new equipment. At the same time, he pointed out, some farmers have opted to leave the business because they can now afford to.
Shale gas is also affecting the workforce, Smith pointed out. “We’re seeing young people in particular leaving the farm for more lucrative jobs in the natural gas industry.” He said the Agriculture Department is studying options to address the outmigration of young farmers, including development of educational programs on career opportunities in farming.
One gas-related activity that could have a significant impact on agriculture is the development of pipelines criss-crossing many fields and forests of rural Pennsylvania. Smith said steps should be taken to steer this development in ways that diminish impact on soil quality and fragmentation. With trees and other vegetation being cleared from pipeline rights-of-way, he noted, it’s important for the acreage to be replanted with plant species that are beneficial to agriculture — pollinating plants, as an example. Lastly, Smith said that Pennsylvania is now third nationally in organic farming sales. A high proportion of start-ups are organic farms, he added, but shale gas-related development could jeopardize organic certification.
Smith is a member of a Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force appointed by Governor Tom Wolf. He is heading a subcommittee that is calling for state-sponsored educational campaign about pipeline development issues for landowners, as well as a geographic information system (GIS) database of all Pennsylvania farms.