Corbett repeals policy on gas drilling in parks

Thursday, February 24, 2011
By Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

corbett imageGov. Tom Corbett has repealed a 4-month-old policy designed to minimize the environmental impact of Marcellus Shale natural gas well drilling in Pennsylvania's parks.

The policy repeal could hurt recreation and the environment in Ohiopyle State Park and a number of other parks in the western part of the state where oil and gas companies are seeking drilling permits, according to the former director of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages the state's parks and forests.

Notice of the repeal was published last week in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. Michael Krancer, acting secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, and several Corbett spokesmen have termed the policy "unnecessary and redundant."

The DEP notice said the department, which has permitting responsibilities for oil and gas wells, would continue to review and consider comments about drilling on public lands from all interested parties.

Representatives for the two state departments over the past two days referred questions about the policy change to the governor's office.

Ed Shirk, a Corbett spokesman, said well drilling companies are required to mitigate environmental damage wherever they drill and the DCNR "can raise any concerns it has like any private landowner."

But John Quigley, who served as former Gov. Ed Rendell's DCNR secretary, said the repealed policy could have provided important safeguards for managing drilling impacts on many ecologically valuable and vulnerable public park lands.

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

Mr. Quigley said the repeal of the policy could affect how, where and when Marcellus Shale drilling takes place in the state's parks.

"Ohiopyle gets 1 million visitors a year and the recreation opportunities it provides are very important to the economy of the region," he said. "Drilling has been proposed and the question is now how is the state going to manage that?"

Pennsylvania has 117 state parks, 61 of them in the two-thirds of the state lying above the Marcellus Shale, a 380 million-year-old formation that might contain more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The mineral rights -- including Marcellus gas deposits -- under 85 percent of that park acreage are privately owned. Courts have ruled that the so-called "mineral estate" rights are superior to surface rights in Pennsylvania, and that the owners of underground mineral rights must be given reasonable access to develop those holdings, even when they lie under parks or other publicly owned land.

Mr. Quigley said the repealed policy required the DCNR to perform an environmental review of the drilling proposal and then negotiate a voluntary mitigation agreement with the drilling company, if possible. If the two sides couldn't reach agreement, the DEP was required to take into account the environmental review findings when issuing a drilling permit.

"It doesn't say DEP can't grant the permit. We thought it would be a positive thing to figure out areas of environmental concern so that we could maintain a balance between getting the gas and protecting the state's park resources," he said. "It's to everyone's advantage not to harm the public lands."

Mark Nicastre, a spokesman with the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said the decision to end the policy is a payoff to oil and gas industry campaign contributors who donated more than $1 million to Mr. Corbett's election campaign.

"By making it easier for his donors to drill in state parks and forests, Tom Corbett is boosting his donors' profits while leaving Pennsylvanians with great uncertainty about the impact of the drilling," Mr. Nicastre said.

Jeff Schmidt, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Harrisburg, said the policy provided a much needed "extra level of scrutiny on drilling proposals for public lands used by millions of Pennsylvanians."

But State Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Venango, chair of the environmental resources and energy committee, issued a statement on Wednesday strongly supporting the governor's repeal. She called the policy "irresponsible" and said it could cost taxpayers "tens of millions of dollars from the impairment of existing [drilling] contracts."

Mr. Quigley said the policy only applied to new drilling permits on state park land, not state forest drilling leases.

Revoking the policy was widely seen as a prelude to Mr. Corbett's previously stated intention to lift a moratorium, imposed by Mr. Rendell in October, on leasing additional state forest land to Marcellus Shale gas drilling. Mr. Shirk said the governor has not decided when he will take that action.

The state has issued leases for a total of 660,000 acres of the state's 2.1 million-acre forest system for both shallow and deep gas and oil drilling. The state owns about 85 percent of the mineral rights under its forests.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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