The Corbett administration announced Friday that it has agreed to a partial settlement in the Commonwealth Court case challenging the governor’s plan to lease more state forest and state park land for unconventional natural gas drilling.
Local lawmakers talked with The Era Monday about the decision, with some reiterating their support for drilling throughout the state — on private and public land.
The administration has agreed not to lease any more state land for gas drilling until the court makes a ruling in the case, and in return the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) has agreed to drop its request for the court to prevent the state from using revenues from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to pay for general operations at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed a state budget in which he had proposed that money from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund would cover the costs of operating and maintaining state parks and forests — should drilling cease, the funds would dry up and state parks and forests would shut down.
Had the environmental group gone through with the preliminary injunction, the DCNR could have been prevented from using more than $120 million appropriated to the department, according to DCNR Secretary Ellen Ferretti.
State Rep. Marty Causer, R-Turtlepoint, implied he thought it was somewhat counter to the environmental group’s mission to stop the drilling and funding to the parks because it would have closed the parks down.
“This environmental group is pursuing litigation that would stop drilling under state parks and forests, and they’re also arguing that drilling revenue should only be used to improve the parks,” Causer explained. “They had been seeking an injunction. Should the injunction have been issued, the effect would be that the parks would close. The budget contains funds from drilling that keeps the parks open.”
Ferretti has said the critical operations of the department will continue, allowing the parks to remain open and staff to be available during this busy part of the year. Other work of the Bureau of Forestry, such as monitoring gas development on the forests to protect their natural and recreational values, as well as fighting fires and managing forest pests, will not be interrupted.
The state budget made DCNR heavily dependent on money from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund, but testimony in the case has stated that money from the fund is meant to be used for specific limited purposes only. The governor’s state budget depended on the new leases generating between $75 and $95 million.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation argues that using the money generated from exploitation of state lands for other purposes could be unconstitutional, and the group asked the judge to prevent any new leasing and use of existing lease funds for DCNR until the case was decided.
“I don’t think the governor’s office was ready to make any new leases quite yet anyway,” Causer said, adding that he believes drilling from private land under the state lands is already ongoing. “This is trapped gas that is under state park land that could be accessed. I’ve supported it because I think its a reasonable proposal.
“It’s non-surface disturbance and I think it’s something we should do. It’s unfortunate that some environmental groups want to stop drilling all together,” he added.
Corbett’s executive order allowing more leasing of state lands stipulates that it can be done without disturbing the surface of state lands, according to state Rep. Matt Gabler, R-DuBois.
“It’s a delicate balance that needs to be maintained when it comes to managing these lands on behalf of the Commonwealth and its citizens,” Gabler said. “Proper protections need to be in place to ensure that there is no surface disturbance with any of these leases going for.”
He said it is his understanding that well pads would be placed on private land adjacent to state parks and forests and then horizontal drilling would be used with laterals extending below the state land to extract the gas.
“It’s kind of a win-win situation,” Gabler said. “The gas can be accessed on private land and royalties would go to benefit state government, taxpayers and the Oil and Gas Lease Fund. I think the proposal represents a middle ground.
“It gives both sides something they want. In order to make the budget work out, transfers will be allowed to go forward,” he continued. “But, the group is able to ensure that the leases don’t happen before the case is decided.”
Causer said the court decision is expected by end of the year.