Shale Gas Drilling on Pennsylvania’s State Lands: PART II

Part I of this blog post focused on a Marcellus Shale monitoring report, released yesterday by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) at a meeting of the DCNR Natural Gas Advisory Committee, of which TU is a member.   

At the meeting, the advisory committee also discussed Gov. Corbett’s budget proposal to generate $75 million in revenue from “non-surface leasing” of state forest and park lands.  It’s important to understand the background.  In 2010, then-Governor Rendell issued an executive order prohibiting the leasing of any additional state lands owned and managed by DCNR, intending to protect critical natural resources, habitat and multiples uses of state lands.  Rendell’s order came on the heels of three major modern shale era lease sales, in 2008 and 2010.  Since then, with the expectation that no additional leasing will occur in the near future, Pennsylvanian’s have been watching how shale gas drilling from those lease sales has been unfolding on state lands. And DCNR’s new monitoring report gives us an idea of how well trout habitat and recreation have fared.

With the Governor’s new proposal, additional leasing of mineral rights underneath state forest and park lands-in a manner which does not create new or additional physical disturbance-would be allowed. What this means is that Pennsylvania would lease its minerals, but only allow those shale gas deposits to be accessed through existing shale gas infrastructure on state forest lands or allow access through neighboring properties (now possible, with the use of horizontal drilling).

Let’s take a look at the first option.  How is it possible that additional leasing—which would increase the number of wells and the need for pipelines to move the gas—could happen on existing shale gas development on state lands?  You can bet that a company who secured one of the 2008 or 2010 leases, evaluated the full potential of gas available in its leased acreage, and then planned the exact number of wells and the exact size pipeline it needed to extract the gas and move it to market. It wouldn’t make financial sense to build-in extra space and capacity, given how expensive the shale gas development process can be.  Is it even feasible to extract gas under a new lease, using existing infrastructure without having a surface impact?   

And then there is the second option—accessing state mineral rights underneath state forest and park lands via the neighbor’s property.  These days, a horizontal section of the well can extend to 9,000 ft. In theory, setting up well pads on a neighbor’s property might allow a company to access gas underneath state lands.   Will state lands be ringed with industrial infrastructure, and what impact will that have on wildlife migration?

Unfortunately, there are no clear answers yet as to how the Governor’s proposal will affect Pennsylvania’s public lands and fish and wildlife habitat.  Until “no additional impact” is clearly defined, it remains to be seen what effect additional mineral leasing will have on the Commonwealth’s resources.  

With the recent formation of the Natural Gas Advisory Committee, there is an opportunity for DCNR to gather input from this multi-stakeholder group that includes a broad array of interests, including industry, academia, conservation organizations and recreational groups.   After all, the committee’s purpose is to advise and provide recommendations for implementing shale gas development on state lands in a way that is consistent with DRNC’s mission. 

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