Corbett Scales Back Policy for Drilling on Public Land

Pittsburgh Tribune Review
23 February 2011
By Associated Press

HARRISBURG -- A policy that environmental advocates view as an important shield for certain state parks and forests against damage from natural-gas drilling has been repealed by Gov. Tom Corbett.

Calling it redundant, the Corbett administration on Saturday killed the policy, which had been written in October under then-Gov. Ed Rendell.

Corbett's Department of Environmental Protection published a four-sentence statement in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, an official state government publication, saying it will continue to consider input from all parties with respect to public resources when it reviews and approves drilling permit applications.

"This document, which was not subject to advanced public comment or review, is being rescinded as unnecessary and redundant of existing practice," the department said.

Multinational exploration companies are spending billions of dollars to pursue the Marcellus shale natural-gas formation, which lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio. But Pennsylvania is the center of activity, with more than 2,000 wells drilled in the past three years and plans for many thousands more.

The Corbett administration took the step as the former head of Rendell's parks and forests agency warned that drilling companies are studying about a half-dozen state parks, including Ohiopyle in Southwestern Pennsylvania and Pymatuning and Maurice K. Goddard in Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Road cutting, pipe laying, truck traffic and drilling will be a jarring experience for people who use the parks for camping, rafting and hiking, said John Quigley, who led the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under Rendell.

Quigley insisted that the just-repealed policy was not redundant, although he acknowledged that it was put into place without public review.

The policy required his former agency to review drilling permit applications for state parks and forests even where the state doesn't own the below-ground natural-gas rights, he said. In essence, it forced those lands to undergo the same process that the department had in place when it chose to lease lands where it does own those rights, Quigley said.

"There are gaping holes in the ability of state government to protect public lands where the state doesn't own mineral rights, and this was designed to close that in a proven and realistic way," Quigley said Tuesday.

A DEP review of drilling on public land is cursory compared to the review by park rangers and foresters, Quigley said.

Corbett's spokesman said yesterday that repealing the policy was part of a two-part process of reopening state lands to drilling rigs, since Corbett is expected to undo a four-month-old Rendell order banning further drilling on state forest lands.

Corbett "believes that we should be drilling on state land," spokesman Kevin Harley said.

Harley criticized Rendell's stance on leasing state forest land for drilling before imposing the order against it, saying it was politically driven.

"He was taking the money and he'd been bragging how much money the state was getting from permits and royalties up until that point," Harley said.

The state owns the gas rights beneath 20 percent of state parks and 85 percent of state forests, according to a department spokeswoman. For decades, it has leased state forest land where it owns natural-gas rights for drilling. But it does not lease state park land for drilling as long as it owns the mineral rights, spokeswoman Chris Novak said.

Some drilling has occurred in the past on state park land, but not for the Marcellus shale formation.