Article by: Brad Bumsted and Andrew Conte- TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Image by: national forestlawblog.com/ apps/blog/show/ 2030125
The natural gas industry could not lease additional state forest land for Marcellus shale drilling under an executive order Gov. Ed Rendell is expected to sign today in Philadelphia.
The state leased about a third of 2.2 million acres of state forest under Rendell’s administration. The order would prohibit any leasing of remaining acres, an aide to the governor said.
“The horse is already out of the barn, but at least they’re shutting the door before anything else gets out,” said John Baillie, senior attorney for PennFuture, a statewide environmental group.
Rendell is scheduled to appear in Philadelphia to talk about Senate Republicans’ unwillingness to approve an extraction tax on the natural gas industry, and he will sign an executive order creating a “strategic moratorium” on future drilling in state forests, his office said.
Senators are willing to negotiate a Marcellus shale tax, said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County. If “lightning would strike” and there’s a consensus agreement, senators are committed to returning and voting before Tuesday’s election, Arneson said, adding that appears unlikely.
It’s not clear what a “strategic moratorium” would accomplish, Arneson said. Rendell announced in May that he would not lease any more state land for Marcellus shale gas development, and the next governor could reverse a moratorium in January.
“It feels like it is designed to press us to do something,” Arneson said.
Since September 2008, Pennsylvania has leased 700,000 acres for Marcellus shale gas production and received $4.5 million in royalties, said Chris Novak, spokeswoman for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Only about 1.5 million acres of state forests sit over the Marcellus shale formation, a gas-rich rock layer that runs about a mile below the surface through several states. Land that isn’t leased is in sensitive wilderness areas, steep slopes that cannot easily be drilled, recreation places and landscapes that would be marred by drilling, Novak said.
A moratorium “would be significant, we believe, to protect the future health of the forests,” Novak said. “Technically, any of it could be drilled. We think what’s left is environmentally sensitive and any additional leasing would have significant impact.”
Separately, the state owns about 300,000 acres of state park land. No Marcellus shale drilling is happening on that land, but the state does not own oil and gas lease rights for about 80 percent of those acres, Novak said.
The moratorium could be an attempt by the governor, a Democrat, to put pressure on the industry and Senate Republicans, said Lou D’Amico, president of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association.
“It’s an election season, so anything’s game, I guess,” D’Amico said.
Attorney General Tom Corbett, the Republican candidate for governor, opposes a moratorium affecting the gas industry, a spokesman said. Democratic candidate Dan Onorato, the Allegheny County executive, supports a ban on future leasing of public land, his spokesman said.
“It is appropriate to stop issuing new permits for state forest land drilling, in order to assess the environmental and infrastructure impact of drilling,” said state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.