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Corbett hopes to raise $75M through natural gas leases in state forests, parks

| Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, 11:11 p.m.

Gov. Tom Corbett wants to end a three-year ban on new leases for natural gas drilling beneath state forests to be able to raise $75 million, a proposal in his budget on Tuesday that angers some critics who say it endangers sensitive wilderness.

Corbett wants the state to sign new leases for drilling beneath state forests and parks to help balance his $29.4 billion spending plan. He would undo a moratorium passed by his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell, but would not allow the work to impact surface land, staffers said. Natural gas wells would reach deposits under parks and forests through horizontal drilling from sites outside.

“There is no increase in overall surface impacts,” said Patrick Henderson, Corbett's deputy chief of staff for energy issues. An executive order would be issued to ban leasing that could result in surface disturbance, Henderson said.

This would be the first statewide effort to allow drilling in parks, Henderson said. The state owns mineral rights under only about 20 percent of 200,000 acres, he said. Private parties own the rest, he said.

The state would get bonus payments when a lease is signed and from royalties negotiated on value of the gas.

The $75 million in the first year would go to the general fund, said Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni.

After that, Corbett would dedicate the royalties to state park and forest infrastructure, Henderson said, or to acquiring private land within state parks or forests.

If the state doesn't have a deal, drillers working near its property could take gas from under state land without paying for it. That makes it a good idea to pursue those deals — as long as officials ensure the work happens outside of parks and forests, said Jack Cohen, board vice president for the Moraine Preservation Fund, which supports Moraine State Park in Butler County.

The money should go into conservation funds, not the general budget, Cohen said.

“Use what you have, but put it back where it's coming from,” said Cohen, also executive director of Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau. “We're looking for quick fixes and I don't know that's always the best thing.”

John Hanger, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former state environmental regulator, cautioned there is no such thing as no-impact drilling: “More drilling always involves more road construction, more pipelines, more truck traffic.”

Other advocates for the environment expressed skepticism.

“This will place more and more of the budget burden on the backs of public lands,” said Cindy Dunn, CEO of PennFuture. “The governor reveals the short-sighted nature of his stewardship of our natural resources by trading more long-term harm to our state parks and forests in return for short-term economic gain.”

The Corbett administration long has considered more forest drilling, but this is its first attempt to lift the ban since Corbett took office in 2011. The state brought in $444.1 million in 2009 and 2010 by leasing forest land to capitalize on the Marcellus shale gas boom.

Rendell, after pushing for those leases, then banned any more of them in October 2010, saying more forest drilling would “jeopardize fragile ecosystems.”

The state has leased nearly half of the 1.5 million acres of forest it owns in the Marcellus fairway. All of the unleased forest land is in ecologically sensitive areas or cannot be accessed without cutting through them, according to a study the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources finished in 2010, leading to Rendell's moratorium.

The last of the Rendell-era leases focused on land that wasn't in those areas or could be accessed from outside them, said John Quigley, the former department secretary who helped oversee that leasing. Corbett officials have not said where they're targeting leases or whether anything has changed since that 2010 report.

“We scoured the state forest for those tracts, what we call doughnut holes,” Quigley said. “We found all the needles in the haystack at that time. I don't know where there are additional tracts like that.”

The Corbett administration believes some of the 2010 study's conclusions were not accurate, Henderson said. It also didn't address the possibility of drilling into the forests from outside of them, he added.

It's unlikely that a drilling company would want to work in the most sensitive areas, said Louis D. D'Amico, leader of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association. His group and the Marcellus Shale Coalition support Corbett's plan. The industry has pushed for more drilling in parks.

“I think it's very encouraging. It's highly justified,” D'Amico said. “We haven't done anything since Rendell left office. It's a good thing and, frankly, way overdue.”

Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed to this report. Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or

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