Pennsylvania lawmakers say bill that halts drilling in Marcellus Shale aims to protect forests

Date: March 30, 2010


March 28, 2010, 7:38PM
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CHRISTINE BAKER, The Patriot-News, 2009A towering gas-drilling rig stood on the Susquehanna County property of Jim Grimsley. Dimock Twp. farmers in Susquehanna County are signing leases with natural gas companies like Cabot Oil & Gas to drill into Marcellus Shale so they can pump out gas.

Pennsylvania lawmakers should learn from history and from Dr. Seuss, said Robert F. Davey
Jr., a retired forester with 38 years of experience in Penn\’s Woods.

The state\’s forests were decimated by rampant logging in the 19th century and a number of its streams were polluted by unrestricted mining, Davey said. He compared those scenarios to “The Lorax” by Seuss, the tale of a species of trees being nearly wiped out, with only one seed remaining.

Davey said lawmakers should be careful when profiting from the Marcellus gas boom “so that future generations won\’t be saddled with mistakes we made because of a myopic view of natural-resource limitations or outright greed.”

He was one of several conservation leaders who testified this month before the state House Majority Policy Committee in support of a five-year moratorium on additional leasing of state forest land for drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

The moratorium, proposed by Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County, would also require studies of the impact of drilling on public lands. The bill, House Bill 2235, was voted out of committee Wednesday morning with two Republicans supporting it.

With the state facing another budget crisis, money lies at the heart of the debate over leasing more public land.

Advocates, including Gov. Ed Rendell, want to repeat last year\’s profitable lease offer, which generated $128 million, twice what officials had hoped. Opponents said the state is moving too fast for a quick buck without fully weighing the implications.

“It\’s become apparent that this administration intends to press for new oil and gas leasing to bankroll their spending priorities,” said Rick Carlson, a former policy director for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“I\’m not real crazy about how we\’re making these decisions,” said Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, one of the two Republicans voting for the moratorium bill Wednesday. “These are long-term, far-reaching decisions, and we make them as knee-jerk budget reactions.”

Everett said he thinks a five-year moratorium is too long, “but I think we need to move this discussion forward.”

Many of his fellow Republicans emphasize the economic value of the Marcellus boom to depressed areas of the state.

“Another word for moratorium is delay, and in our part of the state, we need the jobs,” said Rep. Martin Causer, R-McKean County, whose district includes Cameron and Potter counties, where more than half of the land is owned by the state.

“I recognize the issues,” Causer said. “But I think we can do it properly.”

Some Democrats prefer a moratorium on leasing and a new tax on the gas extracted.

“The alternative to leasing more state forest land is simple: Raise new revenues elsewhere,” said John Quigley, the acting secretary of conservation and natural resources.

Rendell has said he supports an extraction tax on Marcellus gas, but Senate Republicans have said they oppose it.

The budget passed by the House last week includes $112 million in projected revenue from new gas leases next year but does not include an extraction tax.

Nine Marcellus wells have been drilled on state forest land thus far, but some lawmakers predict the number could rise into the thousands.

Everett said he\’d “like to see us take a little bit of a timeout and have the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee do a study of the financial and environmental impacts of all the land we\’re leasing already.”

Nearly 700,000 acres of state forest land is leased for drilling, according to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. And there\’s not much left that would be appropriate to open up, Quigley said.

Quigley testified last week that all of the remaining land is “environmentally sensitive,” including wild areas, old-growth forest, wetlands, areas with endangered species and land with high tourism value.

“There may be pockets here and there” that might be available, said Chris Novak, a department spokeswoman.

Seneca Resources Corp., the highest bidder for two of the most recent leases, would be “likely to participate” in another, said Nancy Taylor, a company spokeswoman.

Seneca Resources and other gas companies oppose the moratorium.

But the issue may be more significant to legislators and conservationists than it is to the gas industry. The companies are aware there is little remaining land that the state is willing to offer; some of the best was included in the last offering, and a moratorium on state leases would have no impact on drilling on private land, which accounts for about 90 percent of Marcellus activity.

There may be bigger issues there.

Matthew B. Royer, a staff lawyer for the Pennsylvania office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, blasted the Department of Environmental Protection\’s “expedited review process,” which stripped authority from local conservation districts, saying it now “consists simply of making sure all the paperwork is in the permit application.”

Last September, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation appealed three permits approved by the DEP under the new process, alleging no technical review of plans was conducted, plans went through wetlands with no effort to avoid impacts, and permits were approved within two to four days.

The DEP subsequently revoked the permits, noting technical deficiencies.

“It should not take the efforts of a third-party conservation organization to track weekly Pennsylvania Bulletin notices, travel to Williamsport to review permit files, and file notices of appeal before the Environmental Hearing Board just to ensure that careful environmental review of Marcellus Shale permits is happening,” Royer said.

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Brian Price
Brian has been practicing law in Northeastern Pennsylvania for the past 25 years. In 2000 he became partner in Dougherty Leventhal & Price, L.L.P. He is Board Certified in Trial Advocacy, named a Super Lawyer and sits on the Board of Governors in Philadelphia.