Penn State Gets Into the Fracking Weeds and Sprays Hyperbole

cost of renewables - Tom ShepstoneTom Shepstone
Natural Gas NOW


Penn State University has done another study. This one is on the fracking weeds and while the conclusions are reasonable PSU is spraying a lot of hyperbole.

Two friends sent me a copy of an article from the Penn State News about a new study the University has completed. It literally gets into the fracking weeds; weeds spread by fracking, that is. It is all about the spread of invasive species of plants along new roads and gas well pads created to extract natural gas. One friend thought the article was rather reasonable and got at a legitimate issue. My other friend had this to say:

The skeptical me wonders how normal dirt and gravel road use and maintenance compares to this “study.”

The average schmoe reading this stuff has no clue to the number of those roads in Pennsylvania or the constant maintenance work that does much the same.

Any vehicle—and there are a lot more using these roads—may be doing the same as what is reported here. And may be a/the major contributing factor/source of the problem.

Although invasive species are surely a legitimate issue, the aspiring curmudgeon in me was immediately drawn to the latter view. After digging in this garden a bit, I concluded my skepticism was warranted; there are weeds than taters to this study.

fracking weeds

Reading the abstract of the study, I didn’t find a lot to disagree about. It includes this reasonable conclusion:

Sixty-one percent of the 127 well pads surveyed had at least one invasive plant species present. Invasive plant presence on well pads was positively correlated with local propagule pressure on access roads and indirectly with road density pre-development, the number of wells, and age of the well pad. The vast reserves of unconventional oil and gas are in the early stages of development in the US. Continued development of this underground resource must be paired with careful monitoring and management of surface ecological impacts, including the spread of invasive plants. Prioritizing invasive plant monitoring in unconventional oil and gas development areas with existing roads and multi-well pads could improve early detection and control of invasive plants.

The title of the study (“Unconventional gas development facilitates plant invasions”) is where things start to go awry, though. Applying the rule of reason again, wouldn’t it have better titled “Control of invasive plant species important in unconventional gas development” or something along those lines? Some readers may imagine I’m quibbling, but doesn’t the abstract suggest the major point of the study is documenting the need for such control measures?

Is it really fair to suggest gas development is also contributing in some unusual manner to the invasive species problem? No, not if you’re aware of far more serious such issues with plants such as Japanese Knotweed which was brought here as an ornamental and now it lines both sides of the Delaware River (where there’s no fracking) because it’s spread by recreators, contractors and just about everyone else.

Let’s also remember two of the worst invasive species in our area of the country are Autumn Olive and Multiflora Rose, both unhelpfully brought to us courtesy of the Natural Resource Conservation Service that used to recommend it for borders. Now, it consumes every unmowed meadow or pasture, with no help from fracking.

Yes, perspective is necessary here and if it’s missing in the title of the study, it’s totally abused in the title of the Penn State News article:

“Shale gas development spurring spread of invasive plants in Pa. forests”

This is a headline obviously intended to draw attention and get the PSU study out and about with the ultimate goal of bringing in more research dollars as well as publicity for the authors. Worse, this article gives no attention to real point of the study; the need for management and control. It’s all hyperbole, in other words, with no balance and that’s the problem with much of academia and most of journalism today. Penn State News is engaged in a little shameless demagoguery, if you ask me, and I’m a Penn State Alumni.

It’s also recycled. Check out this 2010 article on page 4 of a Sierra Club rag, which indicates the new study says nothing in particular that’s new. It’s the same material, more or less, except for one thing; the 2010 pitch by David Mortenson, the study lead in both cases, acknowledges some other factors (emphasis added):

Perhaps the most startling finding of Mortensen’s research relates to the nature of dirt and gravel on forest roads that enables invasive plants such as Japanese stiltgrass to thrive.

“The crushed limestone used to surface many forest roads and to line culverts and drains along those roads are creating ideal conditions for the invasives to spread rapidly,” he said. “The high alkalinity sediment from the stone, mixed with water running off the roads during storms, eventually spills out into the forests, carrying invasive plant seeds and creating areas for them to grow quickly. The high alkalinity prevents native plants that have become adapted to acidic forest soils from growing, and invasives such as Japanese stiltgrass fill the void.”

Ironically, the crushed limestone is being used on many forest roads and in ditches and drains that parallel mountain streams precisely because the material leaches a high-alkalinity slurry that improves the productivity and water chemistry of the streams. That benefits the wild trout and other aquatic organisms that have suffered in many mountain streams after decades of acidic atmospheric deposition (acid rain).

“That only complicates the battle against the spread of invasive plants into Eastern forests and shows the interconnected nature of ecosystems,” Mortensen said. “But measures need to be taken to slow the spread of invasive plants such as Microstegium, because over the long run they will change the nature of our plant communities by outcompeting native plants.”

Yes, government policy that encourages use of crushed limestone is at least partly to blame, according to the 2010 Mortenson, but now Penn State News says its all about the fracking weeds. Notice, too, the 2010 discussion simply refers to roads and not to natural gas development roads per se.

There’s something fishy when Sierra Club journalism is more balanced than academic news. A little further research suggests Mortenson may have some weed choppers to grind. He took part in a junk science conference held in New York City in 2013. Here’s the flyer:

fracking weeds

You’ll note the Catskill Mountainkeeper logo at the bottom right and Grassroots Environmental Education as co-sponsors; both being totally fractivist enterprises. Not only that, but look carefully (click the image for a sharper pdf version) at the list of speakers. They include David Brown, David Carpenter and Paul Rubin, all of whom we’ve previously written about here. This was a fractivist conference, in other words, bought and paid for by the usual suspects. What the heck was Mortenson doing there if he, too, doesn’t have a fractivist bent? It’s a serious question and one readers of that hyped-up, no-balance Penn State News piece ought to ask. There are a lot of other weeds here.


The post Penn State Gets Into the Fracking Weeds and Sprays Hyperbole appeared first on Natural Gas Now.

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