Pennsylvania Governor Ends Moratorium On Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling In Sensitive State Forests

Pennsylvania’s new Republican Governor Tom Corbett fulfilled a campaign promise to rescind his predecessor’s wise executive order and de-facto ban on the leasing of sensitive state forest land for Marcellus shale gas development. This short-sighted decision removes the requirement for environmental  impact assessments prior to the granting of natural gas drilling permits, and strips other critical oversight of gas drilling on publicly-owned forest lands.

Last October, former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell barred gas drilling in state forests to protect “the most significant tracts of undisturbed forest remaining in the state.” The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) determined that leasing new drilling sites would damage the ecological integrity of the state’s forest system. The Rendell moratorium provided significant checks on run-away shale gas development on public lands since it required the state parks and forests agency to thoroughly review drilling permit applications for some public lands “even where the state doesn’t own the below-ground natural gas rights.” Specifically in instances “where the state doesn’t own the mineral rights to 80 percent of state park land and 15 percent of state forest land.”
In a prepared statement released at the time of the ban, Rendell described the need for the moratorium stating:

Drilling companies’ rush to grab private lands across the state has left few areas untouched by this widespread industrial activity…”

We need to protect our unleased public lands from this rush because they are the most significant tracts of undisturbed forest remaining in the state.”

The DCNR was required to take into account:

…threatened and endangered species habitat’ wildlife corridors; water resources; scenic viewsheds; public recreation areas; wetlands and floodplains; high-value trees and regeneration areas; avoiding steep slopes; pathways for invasive species; air quality; noise; and road placement and construction methods.”

Pennsylvanians have a right to feel concerned having seen the destructive environmental and health impacts from fracking for natural gas in the documentary Gasland. The threats to drinking water and public health documented in the film have helped to encourage growing public awareness about the serious risks of hydraulic fracturing and other gas industry practices. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to review the controversial hydraulic fracturing technique widely used by natural gas drillers, with a preliminary assessment due out in late 2012 (with the final report expected in 2014).

Public concern about fracking and other dangerous gas industry activity is surging, especially in the aftermath of the first two must-read installments in a series by The New York Times investigating the negative health and environmental impacts from gas development across the country.

Given this growing evidence of the risks posed by gas development for Pennsylvania’s health and environment, Corbett’s move is not only rushed, risky and wrongheaded, but it will bind his state’s future to yet another dirty fossil fuel.

The new Governor believes the Rendell ban to be redundant and since the November 2010 elections, Republican leaders are emboldened to help their industry campaign contributors.

State Senator Mary Jo White (R-Venango), Chairwoman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and career recipient of nearly $42,000 in campaign contributions from electric utilities, almost $21,000 from mining interests, and $17,000 from oil and gas firms, has cheered on the new Governor’s efforts:

“The policy was irresponsible and could potentially cost Pennsylvania taxpayers tens of millions of dollars from impairment of existing contracts.”

Not all State Senators are happy and particularly Sen. Jim Ferlo who was the first member of the Assembly to sponsor legislation for the moratorium on Marcellus shale gas drilling:

I think that many of us were willing to give the new Governor the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, the honeymoon is already over because these repeals are a clear signal that the Governor is not ashamed to disregard common sense and the public interest to satisfy the oil and gas industry…”

“This week there was another accident in Washington County and three workers were seriously injured. As Governor, his is job to protect Pennsylvania, our natural resources, and our public health…”

“Instead, he is repealing necessary regulations and replacing them with a blank-check for the gas-drillers.”

Additionally, John Quigley, a former DCNR secretary under Gov. Rendell said the repealed policy:

“…wasn’t redundant. In fact, quite the opposite situation exists. There are gaping holes in the state’s ability and practice of considering well drilling applications on public park and forest lands…”

“The policy was just a common-sense approach to mitigating or avoiding any environmental, recreational and aesthetic impacts from the well drilling.”

Governor Corbett’s decision to weaken gas regulations is a poor one that wagers the future of Pennsylvania’s families, communities and ecosystems on a filthy fossil fuel.