Marcellus Shale

Is Natural Gas Production Affecting Local Birds? Don’t Jump to Conclusions!

The Countryside Conservancy and South Branch Tunkhannock Creek Watershed Coalition recently hosted a talk by Jeffery Stratford, Ph.D. Stratford has had a passion for birds his entire life.  The Wilkes University Biologist has been catching and taking blood samples from 176 birds, 31 different species in 21 locations throughout 10 different watersheds in northern Pennsylvania. Through his research Stratford is looking to answer the question; is natural gas production affecting local birds?  Some press accounts of  Stratford’s talk have implied a connection, but I was there and that isn’t what I heard.  The presentation was balanced and a contribution to sane discussion about natural gas.

The essence of Stratford’s work is as follows:

We collect 100ul (3-4 drops) of blood from each bird and look for elevated amounts of glutathione S-transferase, which is an enzyme found in many animals that responds to contaminants.

Stratford is looking for a direct relationship between the number of natural gas wells in an area and the amount of glutathione S-transferase or contaminants found in birds. He said he has found elevated levels of glutathione S-transferase.  However, when asked if he could determine what was causing the higher levels, he stated,

It is beyond my expertise to determine what is actually causing the elevated levels.

According to Stratford these increased levels could be due to a local effect. Local effect contamination could be anything from pesticides being used to different fertilizers running off into the local water. Of course, its also worth considering that birds fly thousands of miles, covering wide swaths of territory as well, which makes using them as an indicator of impacts from natural gas development a bit silly.

When talking about the potential pollution connected with natural gas production he distinguished between the general impacts of development and incidents such as spills, having this to say about the latter:

Notice that Stratford states he doesn’t think think there will be systematic pollution associated with natural gas development.  He’s more concerned about accidents.  There is, of course, risk in everything we do. This is why we have regulations in place to mitigate that risk. If things are done the correct way and no corners are cut this should not be an issue.

This brings home a key point.  Many anti-natural gas protesters consider themselves “environmentalists” yet, they have no problem using the imported fossil fuels from countries with less regulations than we enjoy.  So, doesn’t it make sense to develop our own resources here where we know it will be accomplished under strict regulations that are safer for the environment?

Countryside Conservancy Easement in Herrick Township, Susquehanna County

One issue, of many, with this study is that there is no baseline for comparison. So, if there is no baseline, so how do we know glutathione S-transferase wasn’t in the birds system before coming to this area? How do we know levels are elevated, if there is no baseline?  The answer is that we don’t know and Stratford was honest on these points, although a less than careful reader of the Scranton Times Tribune might draw the opposite connection.   Stratford also acknowledged that, with such a low sample size of 176 birds, the data was very inconclusive at this point.

Since starting this pilot study, Stratford says he’s learned a few things and in the future hopes to catch more birds of fewer species, account for the local effect and look for other indicators of stress with the birds.  One hopes he will some day be able to make a more definitive conclusion about the effects of natural gas production, if any, on local birds, but, for now, it doesn’t appear there is any hard evidence of such a connection.  All we know is what we don’t know.  Now, if only we could get our friends on the other side to admit that and simply work together to learn and improve, we’d be getting somewhere.



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