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You are here: Home Cooperative Our Plan Section 1: Biodiversity and Conservation Challenges Across the Appalachian Region Energy Opportunities and Challenges

Energy Opportunities and Challenges

Energy development has emerged as a significant economic opportunity for Appalachian communities that carries with it complex challenges for natural resource sustainability and species conservation.  In recent years, permit proposals for natural gas and wind energy development have significantly increased.  Shale, which contains shale gas, has long been considered too difficult to drill until recent horizontal-drilling and hydraulic-fracturing technology breakthroughs.  Exploratory drilling in the Marcellus shale deposit is on the rise.

Coal Mining.  Surface mining and underground mining techniques are both prevalent within the Appalachian LCC.  Coal production is an important energy source for the U.S., mostly as fuel for generating electricity and also for making steel.  Environmental concerns include degraded groundwater and surface water from coal fines and chemicals used during processing, acid mine drainage from active and abandoned mines, risks of accidental releases and spills, and direct loss of forest and stream habitats especially through valley fills associated with mountaintop removal.  State and federal laws require that coal operators successfully return mined areas to their pre-mining land uses or better land uses.  The Office of Surface Mining operates the Abandoned Mineland Fund under Title IV of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA, 1977).  Historic coal funds are distributed by formula based on historic coal mining production before the SMCRA in each eligible State or Tribe. A State or Tribe is eligible for historic coal funds if it has an inventory of unfunded Priority 1 and 2 coal problems greater than its State or Tribal share funding.  In general, abandoned mine lands are lands and waters adversely impacted by inadequately reclaimed surface coal mining operations on lands that were not subject to reclamation requirements. Environmental problems associated with abandoned mine lands include surface and ground water pollution, unreclaimed or inadequately reclaimed refuse piles and minesites (including some with dangerous highwalls), sediment-clogged streams, damage from landslides, and fumes and surface instability resulting from mine fires and burning coal refuse. Environmental restoration activities under the abandoned mine reclamation program correct or mitigate these problems. The federal Office of Surface Mining also oversees the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), a voluntary program developed focuses on restoring forests where deforestation has occurred as a result of coal mining in the Appalachians.

Marcellus shale.  The Marcellus shale formation, a gas-productive formation spread across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Ohio, Maryland and Virginia, has become the premier natural gas industry focus in the Appalachian Basin.  Shale gas has long been produced from shales with natural fractures. Recently, however, there has been increased development of gas shales due to the introduction of techniques that create artificial fractures around well bores – a procedure known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.  Researchers at Texas A&M University estimate that horizontal wells, undergoing multi-stage fracs, can use between 5 and 6 million gallons of water.  In addition to water and sand, other compounds are injected into the hydraulic solution including friction reducers, biocides, surfactants, scale inhibitors, and hydrochloric acid is also used as part of the fracturing process.  It is possible that the potential for some Marcellus shale drill cuttings to generate acid and mobilize metal pollutants, presenting a serious threat to aquatic systems and communities.  The gas industry is collaborating with universities, communities, government and non-government partners to develop best management practices for development of Marcellus shale production.

Wind Energy.  Promoting green energy development is a national goal of our country, and wind-powered energy is the most rapidly growing renewable energy source.  The Appalachians topography is perfect for siting wind turbines, as evidenced by its long-term significance as an important migratory bird corridor.  It is not yet well understood how wind turbines and turbine fields affect migratory birds, bats or other species.  Of primary concern is direct mortality of birds and bats due to collisions with turbine blades, and cumulative effects must also be assessed.  However, early research indicates that mortalities of birds may be less a concern than previously thought.

Transmission Lines.  The ultimate structure of the electricity industry, as envisioned by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, includes large regional transmission organizations (RTOs) that will be responsible for planning and expanding transmission systems on a broad regional scale.  The transmission grid is more than a “highway” linking generators to loads. As explained by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC 1997), transmission networks are the “principal media for achieving reliable electric supply.” They deliver electricity from generators to loads; provide flexibility so that the highway functions can be maintained over a wide range of generation, load, and transmission conditions; reduce the amount of installed generating capacity needed for reliability by connecting different electrical systems; permit economic exchange of energy among systems; and connect new generators to the grid.

The Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH) project is a 765-kilovolt (kV) transmission line proposed to extend for 275 miles from Amos, West Virginia through Virginia to end at Kemptown, Maryland.  The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have identified a number of physical, natural, cultural, socioeconomic, operational, and other resources that potentially could be affected by the proposed PATH ROWs on federal lands.  Environmental oncerns include:  impacts to rare, threatened, endangered, and sensitive habitats; habitat and population fragmentation; invasive species; water and air quality; and climate change/greenhouse gases .  Also potentially impacted are cultural, archeological, ethnographic, social and economic resources.  There would be impact on historic properties, cultural landscapes, visitor use and experience, viewsheds, scenic views and visual resources, soundscapes and noise, local community impacts, and environmental justice.

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