Situated amidst the bucolic forests and Appalachian peaks of southwestern Pennsylvania, Ohiopyle State Park offers one of the best settings for outdoor recreation in the country. One and half million people visit the park each year to hike, hunt and fish, kayak and contribute millions of dollars to the regional economy.
By coincidence of geology and biology, though, Ohiopyle also sits atop a highly coveted portion of one of the largest natural gas deposits in the world—the Marcellus Shale formation. All sorts of aspirations and mythologies have been bestowed upon the extraction of millions of years’ worth of decayed organic matter (i.e., natural gas) that lies a mile below ground, such as creating 200,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania and helping to wean the nation from oil imports.
Last October, outgoing Democratic Governor Ed Rendell sought to slow the pace of the natural gas industry’s scramble for Marcellus riches—and address growing concerns about the environmental and public health impacts of drilling—by signing an executive order prohibiting the issuance of any new drilling leases on public lands.
But newly elected Republican Governor Tom Corbett has pledged to overturn Rendell’s moratorium. Since taking office in January, Corbett has rolled back environmental oversight of natural gas drilling on public lands.
“The whole concept of a public commons is under threat,” says John Quigley, who was head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) under Governor Rendell. DCNR is the agency tasked with overseeing the state’s public parks and forests, which is recognized as the best-managed in the country.
Think of it as an environmental counterpart to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s attack on public workers’ right to bargain collectively.
Corbett’s support for the natural gas industry comes as no surprise; the oil, natural gas and mining industries contributed $1.5 million to his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
And with largesse comes rewards. Corbett’s first appointment came in December, a month before taking office. He selected a man named C. Alan Walker to head the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development. Walker, who has contributed nearly $200,000 to Corbett political campaigns, is president and CEO of Bradford Energy Company and served as a member and past chairman of the board of directors of both the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and the Pennsylvania Coal Association.
In addition to the appointment, Corbett granted Walker special power to “expedite any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted.” With a stroke of his pen, Walker could render environmental regulations meaningless.
Then, in February, Corbett rolled back a key environmental hurdle for the natural gas industry, ending state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) review of drilling activities on state-owned land. Where once DEP worked in tandem with DCNR to anticipate and propose mitigation measures for potentially harmful drilling activities, now a drill operator is required only to submit a checklist confirming that it has taken adequate steps toward avoiding certain environmental impacts.