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Corbett allows drilling under state lands

| Friday, May 23, 2014, 2:11 p.m.

Gov. Tom Corbett will allow natural gas companies to drill under state forests and parks but will ban drilling that would result in long-term surface disturbances.

In an executive order that took effect on Friday, Corbett ended a blanket ban on gas drilling leases by allowing companies to drill horizontally from wells on properties adjacent to state lands, or on land the state leased.

Political opponents and environmental advocates blasted the decision, saying it will result in a buildup of potentially hazardous drilling sites near sensitive, protected lands.

Corbett contends the order will preserve the environment and generate millions of dollars for the state.

“This balanced approach will ensure that the special characteristics and habitats of (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) lands are conserved and protected, and will also provide for historic investments in conservation programs, our schools and quality health care, without raising taxes on Pennsylvanians,” the governor said in a statement.

Davitt Woodwell, executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said Corbett is risking the state's natural resources in pursuit of money.

“We don't want to see the protection of the public land compromised because of broader fiscal issues,” he said. “The state's environmental and conservation values should not be compromised just as a part of the budget debate, or just because it looks like easy money.”

The shale gas industry will be a factor in the November election, analysts have said, in which Corbett, a Shaler Republican, is challenged by York businessman Tom Wolf.

Wolf, who easily won the Democratic nomination on Tuesday, said he favors a 5 percent extraction tax on natural gas, rather than drilling beneath state forests and park lands.

“Gov. Corbett's decision to allow more drilling on state-owned land is another example of him favoring gas companies over Pennsylvania families,” Wolf said. “This is little more than an election year gimmick to plug a $1.2 billion deficit.”

Corbett said in February that he wants to raise $75 million by ending the ban on new leases for gas drilling beneath state forests.

But access to shale gas is not the problem, said Katie McGinty, who was secretary of Environmental Protection for former Gov. Ed Rendell, who imposed the moratorium that Corbett rescinded.

“I think where the governor should focus is on the development we currently have. We've gone from three out of four jobs (in the shale industry going to Pennsylvanians) to only one in two. That's the wrong direction,” said McGinty, who lost to Wolf in the gubernatorial primary.

Rendell's moratorium affected 800,000 acres of unleased state land above the Marcellus shale formation, according to the state. The DCNR manages approximately 2.5 million acres of state park and forest lands.

Corbett's order bans new leases that involve long-term surface disturbances, which the DCNR defines as “creating or increasing the footprint of roads, pipelines, compressor stations and well pads on the newly-leased tracts.”

Short-term use of the forest surface for surveys or resource evaluation will be considered on a case-by-case basis, officials said.

Environmental advocates said those decisions should be publicly debated before approval.

Over the past five years, private gas and oil wells in state forests pumped $582 million into the state budget, forestry officials said last month.

“Safe, tightly regulated shale development has been, and continues to be, a powerful economic engine for the entire commonwealth, creating thousands of jobs (and) generating huge amounts of tax revenue,” Marcellus Shale Coalition President Dave Spigelmyer said.

“This common-sense approach, which minimizes surface disturbance, will bolster these broad-based benefits and further position Pennsylvania for a brighter, more prosperous future.”

Though many environmentalists would prefer no drilling, Woodwell said Corbett's approach at least takes into account “their responsibilities of the public trust.”

“We still have questions,” Woodwell said. But state regulators “seem to be serious about doing what they can to minimize risks.”

Chris Togneri and Mike Wereschagin are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Togneri at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com and Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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