As part of a Commonwealth Court order released last week, Pa. Gov. Tom Corbett and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have agreed not to lease any more additional state forest or park land until the court makes a decision on a larger court case, filed two years ago by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Fund.
The order, dated July 17, was brief and also puts on hold the issue of transfer of funds from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the state’s DCNR.
The case began in 2012 when PEDF filed the lawsuit, contending that the leasing violated the state’s own environmental rights amendment to the state constitution and asking Corbett to conduct a complete environmental assessment on the impacts drilling would have on state lands, keep all drilling-related revenue in the state’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund to deal with the impacts of gas extraction on state lands, and return the $380,000 that has already been taken from the lease fund and put into the state’s General Fund.
It’s a wide-ranging lawsuit that has slowly worked its way through the court over the past two years, but last week’s order is the first to put a stop to the large snowball that has been rolling down the hills of state forests throughout the northcentral portion of the state.
Half of the state’s forestland that sits atop the Marcellus shale has been leased for drilling and in places like the Tiadaghton and Tioga state forests, industry has already left its imprint. In a May 2014 executive order, Corbett lifted the four-year moratorium on leasing more state land for drilling, opening the door for what he expected to be a $75 billion boost to the state’s budget (that was later increased to an estimated $95 million by the Legislature).
As part of most recent order, the PEDF has agreed to hold off on the issue of transferring funds from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the DCNR. In the state’s current budget (signed by Corbett two weeks ago), the department is largely dependent on that fund for its operations; if PEDF were to pursue (and win) the illegal transfer of funds point, it would leave the state agency without any financial ability to protect the state’s forests and parks. So that will be on hold, as well.
But it’s not over. And the time is now for Pennsylania’s sportsmen to join the hundreds of other hunters and anglers around the state that have called for an opportunity to provide input before any potential further leasing of state forest and park lands occurs. Currently, the leasing process happens largely behind closed doors, without a public input process.
Representative Rick Mirabito, from northcentral Pa., has introduced House Bill 2318 (click here for the text of the bill) to create a public input process and open the doors of communication with DCNR, prior to any additional leasing of state forest lands. The public can make comments about HB2318 at a hearing that will be held on Monday, July 28, in Williamsport.
For now, our state parks and forests have a reprieve. And Pennsylvania’s hunters and anglers must take this opportunity now to have their voices heard in future decisions about shale gas development on public lands.