Governor Rendell’s state budget proposal includes a plan to lease more state forest land for gas drilling. The plan could bring in another $112 million dollars and the governor says Pennsylvania needs the money.
Gas companies are eager to lease the land so they can drill down past the Marcellus Shale rock formation to tap natural gas reserves underneath. Conservationists want Pennsylvania to halt new lease offers until the state better understands the environmental impacts of the drilling plans already in the works.
Myron Arnowitt is the Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action.
Arnowitt: Hopefully we can learn something from how we handled coal mining in this state where initially there was very little regulation and we saw a lot of damage that happened to the state. All these people want to drill for gas in Pennsylvania, we want to make sure that we get this right from the beginning.
Governor Rendell’s spokesman says the plan to lease additional forestland in the coming budget year was settled during last year’s budget negotiations when lawmakers were looking for recurring revenue sources. But Delaware County lawmaker Greg Vitali says there was a one-time plan to offer leases in the current fiscal year but no deal for the next year.
Vitali: There very well may have been a secret agreement made behind closed doors, but if that were the case we were deceived.
Vitali says he’ll fight the proposal.
Conservationists see Rendell’s proposal as a dramatic expansion that could hurt the environmental balance of state forests.
Drilling companies blast the Marcellus shale with a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals to release the natural gas. Conservationist say the process called “fracking” produces toxic wastewater. Nancy Taylor says her company disagrees.
Taylor: We don’t believe that water should be at risk in any way. The geological formations — being what they are — we are way below where the water table is at. So I don’t think we can affect the water for any citizens that live in the area or the creeks or streams.
Taylor is spokeswoman for the gas exploration company Seneca Resources. Seneca leases state forestland for drilling and hopes to bid on more.
Pennsylvania’s latest Marcellus lease offer generated $128 million for the Commonwealth.
The group Clean Water Action is supporting a bill sponsored by Representative Vitali that calls for an environmental review on existing drilling plans and a five-year moratorium on future gas leases. Vitali says Pennsylvania has gone far enough.
Vitali: We need to step back and assess what impact this drilling — that will come anyway — will have before we decide to lease more land. It’s going to take us a few years because these drills aren’t even producing yet.
So far, just a handful of wells are producing on state forestland now, but Vitali says as many as six thousand wells will begin operating in the next 15 years.