Budget proposal riles lawmakers, environmentalists

A group of Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists say the current budget proposal that calls for reductions in funding and increased gas exploration on state land would cause irreparable environmental harm.

The proposal, agreed upon by three of the four legislative caucuses and Gov. Rendell would "put revenue ahead of science" by opening up an additional 250,000 acres of state land to gas leasing and would compel the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to generate revenue at the expense of land protection, said Rep. David Levdansky (D., Allegheny).

"The damages and consequences will haunt us forever," he said. "It sacrifices the integrity of the state forest by tying DCNR's hands."

The lawmakers, who are pushing budget negotiators to reconsider their proposal, said they also oppose the planned elimination of the state's Oil and Gas Fund, which supports state parks, and the reduction in the Department of Environmental Protection budget by 25 percent.

At the same time, they said, the state is allowing multi-billion gas companies off the hook by not imposing a tax on natural gas extraction in the lucrative Marcellus Shale deposit.

The Marcellus Shale formation is a rich, underground natural gas reserve that runs from the northeast to the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania.

About 660,000 acres of the 1.5 million acres of state forest land in the Marcellus Shale region has already being made available for drilling. Estimates suggest a tax on the extraction of natural gas would generate as much as $600 million in five years.

Jan Jarrett, president of PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy group, said the proposal helps only the natural gas industry.

"To add insult to injury, this proposal hands over public lands to the natural gas industry," she said. "This budget deal is not in the public interest."

Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware) said he is angry that DEP budget is being slashed and that hundreds of people risk losing jobs as a result.

"Under this budget agreement as we understand it, DEP's budget would fall from $229 million to $173 million," Vitali said. "DEP's programs have already been cut, including the black fly and West Nile virus programs. The Keystone Help Energy Program cut half of its 1,500 contractors as of August, and the entire program will close in December."


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