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.
DCNR’s budget has suffered, too. Corbett made funding of state parks contingent on the revenues they generate from leasing natural gas. Since the 1950s, says Jan Jarrett, president of PennFuture, a state conservation group, leasing revenues went into a fund used to buy up greater amounts of parkland, for instance, or promote conservation, rather than into DCNR itself. But with this year’s budget, Corbett has used those revenues to fund the department. In other words, rather than funding the DCNR through General Fund allocations, he is making it more dependent on revenue from resource extraction.
Jarrett is worried about this precedent. “If the department is running off of timber or natural gas lease sales, there becomes a motivation to increase the number of leases or boost revenues from resource extraction.”
Corbett has yet to lift the drilling moratorium, but there is no regulatory hurdle stopping him.
“To Corbett’s credit, he did not propose any additional leasing in his current budget,” says Quigley, “However, his spokespeople have indicated that the governor thinks that the moratorium should be lifted.”
PennFuture’s Jarrett speculates that a Corbett decision to lift the moratorium may come down to budget considerations after all. “There’s been a huge outcry over the cuts to public and higher education,” she says, describing the governor’s primary remedy for addressing the state’s $4 billion budget deficit. “I suspect that the General Assembly will balk at the level of cuts that Corbett wants and he’ll have to give some of that money back. So he may look again to the state forest land.”
Currently, about one-third of Pennsylvania’s public lands—700,000 acres—are leased to drilling companies. While Rendell’s moratorium put a stop to further leasing, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not own the subsurface mineral rights to 80 percent of state parks. About half of the state’s 117 parks, according to Quigley, lie above the Marcellus Shale formation. So even with Rendell’s moratorium in place, the natural gas industry has wide access to the public lands, including Ohiopyle. Further weakening the state’s regulatory authority, a 2009 state supreme court decision limited DCNR’s ability to impose use conditions on public lands to which it owns only the surface rights.
With the construction of a natural gas well pad on public land comes the need for miles of service roads and underground pipelines that fragment both critical wildlife habitat and areas of uninterrupted outdoor recreational space. Thousands of truck trips are required for each well due to the millions of gallons of chemical-infused water that is needed to fracture the subsurface geologic formations and release the gas trapped inside. “The question,” says Quigley, “is what are the limits of resource extraction on the public lands?”
Thanks to Quigley, though, this is no longer an open question. Under his direction, DCNR conducted a two-year study of the likely impacts of natural gas extraction on the public parks system. The study determined that “no additional leasing involving surface disturbance can occur without significantly altering the ecological integrity and wild character of our state forest system.” Rendell’s drilling moratorium was in response to this finding, along with peaking concerns over the environmental and public health impacts of natural gas drilling.
“There is a huge outdoor recreation culture and ethic in Pennsylvania,” Quigley continues. “The hunting and fishing opportunities that our public lands provide define to a significant degree the character of our state. This parks system was built so that every citizen of the state could have access to their natural inheritance. It’s grounded in the state constitution.”
In March, Corbett empanelled a Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, which will deliver a final set of recommendations to the Governor this summer. The panel—remaining consistent with Corbett’s financial backing—is stacked in the industry’s favor, and conservationists speculate that the panel might provide political cover for the governor to reverse the moratorium in exchange for a nominal production tax or local impact fee.
In the meantime, Quigley appeals to the governor’s rational side: “I’m hoping that he will have an opportunity to review the analysis that DCNR did and he can be persuaded that we need to take a much more conservative approach to drilling on public lands.”