Lawmakers, residents struggle with whether to permit more gas drilling

    The state once again is facing a shortage of money. One way to raise more cash would be to open up more state forest lands to the natural gas drilling bonanza that’s sweeping the state.

    Pennsylvania lawmakers have begun a budget process they hope won’t last 100 days past their deadline as it did last year. The state once again is facing a shortage of money. One way to raise more cash would be to open up more state forest lands to the natural gas drilling bonanza that’s sweeping the state. But some lawmakers and activists say the forests should not be for sale.

    Ray Werts is the President of the Western Clinton Sportman’s Association. He travelled more than 200 miles, from the tiny town of Renovo in Clinton County, to testify at a state legislative hearing in suburban Philadelphia. “It’s not that we want to stop Marcellus Shale, Werts said. “that train is coming. It’s that we want to slow it down so we can get the proper protection in place before this gets us in trouble.”

    The Marcellus Shale that Werts talks about is a stretch of rock that lies about a mile below the surface and includes large deposits of natural gas. It stretches from upstate New York, through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virgina. Only recently, has the market price of natural gas made drilling worthwhile. Gas companies have gobbled up mineral rights on private land. And the number of wells drilled in Pennsylvania this year is expected to more than double from last year.

    But environmentalists worry about what the drilling process, known as “hydraulic fracturing” will do to ground and surface water supplies.

    Werts and his friend Jim Nevins came to the hearing in King of Prussia because they say without help from people in populated areas like Philadelphia, they will be voices in the wilderness.

    “I can guarentee you one thing dear,” Werts said. “All this money they’re talking about plowing in here, it will come and it will vanish. And then when you’re trying to find a place to relax and get away from the rat race of the big city, you’re gonna want to come up to our neck of the woods. And you don’t have to go to Montana, you don’t have to go to Wyoming and spend a fortune. And that’s the value of it to the people of Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh. We need their help to get this train under control that’s hit our state forest because if we don’t, look out.”

    Nevins is only one of about 38,000 people who live in Clinton County, where more than 60 percent of the land is publicly owned. (Much of it lies on top of the gas rich Marcellus Shale).

    State conservation officials have warned against more drilling on state forest land. Forest managers say with each well, comes several acres of clear cuts, hundreds of trucks and the need for new roads.

    Rick Carlson is a retired policy director for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Carlson is a vocal opponent of more drilling.

    “When the Department did the first Marcellus lease,” Carlson said. “I don’t think there was anyone in the agency who expected to see $170 plus million dollars come in from that lease. And when that information became public, I think the General Assembly, the Governor’s office, everybody saw this as a potential revenue source and jumped on it especially given the fiscal crisis that everyone was facing.”

    The current budget depends on $180 million dollars from the new forest leases.

    But what really gets Carlson mad is the fact that in the past, any money from leasing gas on state land got poured back into the parks and forests. But Governor Rendell wants to put that money into the general fund.

    A spokesman from the governor’s office says they wanted to balance the budget the old fashioned way, by raising taxes. But they say that was not popular with lawmakers, so they turned to leasing the state forests.

    Today, a small group of legislators who call themselves the “Green Dogs” want a five-year moratorium on new gas leases in the state forests. But Representative Greg Vitali, from Havertown, says its an uphill battle.

    “The reality is legislators can talk tough when they’re out in the suburbs and they’re around environmentally sensitive constituents.” Vitali said. “The real test of legislative courage is when they have to stand up to their leadership who has the power to withold grant money, withhold the passage of other legislation, withold staffing.”

    A spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of Pennsylvania says the environmental concerns are overblown. He says the industry has used hydraulic fracturing for 60 years, without polluting the water supply. And the five-acre clear cuts for each well are much less than the damage done by logging state forests.

    Meanwhile, Jim Nevins and the Western Clinton Sportsmen’s Association say they won’t give up the forest so easily.

    “Look in the past,” he said “up in our neck of the woods, we didn’t have anything in place. The lumber barons came in, raped the forest, we got stuck with the bill. The coal barons came in, we’re still spending a million dollars a year cleaning up acid mine drainage. Still! Still doing that. Do we want this to happen again? I hope not. We may be from the sticks. And you may be from the city, but if we don’t stick together on this, we’re all gonna be in trouble.”

    The governor doesn’t need lawmaker’s approval to lease more state forest land. But he will need their consent to pour the procedes into the general fund.

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