Corbett lifts moratorium on gas leasing of state park and forest land

 (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

(Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Governor Corbett issued an executive order today overturning a 2010 state moratorium on new oil and gas leasing of public park and forest land.

The administration calls the executive order a restrictive approach to expanding drilling.

It allows companies to extract gas horizontally from wells located on adjacent private land or in areas of state forests where leases already exist.

Former Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, leased about 130,000 acres of state forest land to gas companies, before he instituted a moratorium on future leasing during his last year in office.

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“With this executive order, I am directing that the commonwealth maintain a moratorium on any additional gas leasing of [Department of Conservation and Natural Resources] lands that involves long-term surface disturbance, such as placing well pads, roads or pipelines in the newly-leased areas,” Corbett said in a statement.

“This balanced approach will ensure that the special characteristics and habitats of DCNR lands are conserved and protected, and will also provide for historic investments in conservation programs, our schools and quality health care, without raising taxes on Pennsylvanians.”

Corbett expects the new leasing to raise $75 million immediately, in leasing bonus payments. In the order, he also directs DCNR to spend future royalty revenue on upgrading park and forest infrastructure and acquiring land.

However, it’s not clear he has the legal authority to do that.

Pennsylvania’s fiscal code was amended in 2009. It states that no royalty money from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund may be expended unless appropriated by the General Assembly.

And although the governor’s proposal could allow for more drill rigs, equipment, and truck traffic in public forests, DCNR Secretary Ellen Ferretti has said the administration does not view that as an additional surface disturbance.

“I know that’s out there– about the increased truck traffic, etcetera,” she said at a February budget hearing. “If a new well bore is permitted, that is not a new or additional surface disturbance. These are old leases that were already executed.”

The state’s main gas industry trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition praised the plan as a common-sense approach.

“Safe, tightly-regulated shale development has been, and continues to be, a powerful economic engine for the entire Commonwealth, creating thousands of jobs, especially in our manufacturing sector, and generating huge amounts of tax revenue all while enhancing our environment.” said MSC president Dave Spigelmyer in a statement.

Environmental groups have criticized the plan. PennFuture president Cindy Dunn issued a statement in conjunction with the heads of seven other environmental organizations, calling the plan short-sighted.

“It’s a disappointment,” she says. “We think it’s a big mistake to go forward with this. As with the past leases, this was driven by budgetary needs, not by the sound management of the public trust.”

State Rep. Greg Vitali (D- Delaware) also opposes the idea and filed a Right To Know Law request earlier this year seeking more information about the proposal– including how the administration arrived at the $75 million figure.

His request was initially denied, but yesterday the state Office of Open Records sided with him.

“This is all being done in a very non-transparent way. I think it’s despicable. [Corbett] is clearly trying to hide what he’s doing by releasing it at the moment where public attention is at its lowest point,” says Vitali, referring to the timing of the announcement before a holiday weekend.

The governor’s announcement also comes just a few days before a previously scheduled court hearing on the matter.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation is seeking an injunction against the expanded leasing plans and will go before the Commonwealth Court next Wednesday.

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