Corbett administration officials got a grilling from Democrat House members Tuesday over a plan to expand Marcellus Shale gas leases in state parks and forests.
Ellen Ferretti, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, told members of the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday the plan will ensure that when drilling occurs that there will be no additional forest destroyed or roads built.
"There will be no new additional surface disturbances to our precious park and forest land," said Ferretti.
Outside about 75 anti-fracking activists attempted to deliver a petition to Gov. Corbett's office two floors up. They chants of "Protect our Forests" almost drowning out the testimony in the hearing room below.
A trio of Democrats - all lawyers from the southeast - challenged Ferretti on the environmental impacts of expanded leasing and revenue projections.
"There are no limits on current leases right now?" asked Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D., Bucks), who was joined by Delaware County Reps. Greg Vitali and Madeleine Dean in the questioning of the DCNR officials.
Ferretti said there could be more drilling, just so long as there was no surface disturbance.
She emphasized that the state does not own the mineral rights under 80 percent of state park land. The acreage in question would be adjacent to public and private lands under existing leases and could be developed using horizontal drilling techniques.
Dan Devlin, deputy secretary for parks and forestry, said that there would be no new roads, new impoundments or new pipelines, But he said there could be more truck traffic.
Devlin said there are 569 active well pads on state forest land and 227 gas pads in state forests that have been approved, but have not yet been drilled. He said up to eight wells could be drilled on a single pad.
Corbett, in his budget address earlier this month, proposed lifting a 2010 moratorium on leasing additional state forests for Marcellus Shale natural-gas development, to generate $75 million for state coffers.
At the same time, Corbett will issue a new executive order that will prohibit leasing of state forest or park land which would result in any new or additional surface activity on the state-owned land, said the governor's energy executive Patrick Henderson.
Additionally, Henderson said the administration plans to use royalty revenue in the future to buy some of the oil and gas rights under sensitive state lands where the state does not own the rights but where development may not be appropriate, so that those lands are protected and not subjected to private development.
The governor has requested input from conservation organizations on the leasing issue, Henderson said. He added that there is no timeline for the executive order, but that he did not anticipate it being released before April.
Corbett's action would lift a ban put in place by Gov. Ed Rendell during his last months in office in 2010, when state conservation officials said any additional leasing would jeopardize the state's certification for sustainable-forestry practices.
Under questioning from Santarsiero about how the department arrived at the $75 million figure for additional revenue, Ferretti said the number was developed in consultation with the budget office.
With Marcellus gas leases going for roughly $3,000 an acre, the department would have to lease an additional 25,000 acres to meet Corbett's revenue projections.
Meanwhile, a group of environmental activists marched up to the governor's office on the second floor of the Capitol to deliver a petition they said contained 15,000 signatures against Corbett's plan to lift the moratorium on gas leasing.The activists were part of Conservation PA, a coalition of environmental groups and civic groups, that argues there will be impacts to air, water and traffic, regardless of whether new drill pads are built.
“Public sentiment has been clear on state forest drilling. The Franklin & Marshall poll results released only three weeks ago show that 68% of Pennsylvanians oppose state forest drilling,” said Karen Feridun, founder of Berks Gas Truth. “Exposing more of our sensitive forest land to fracking is bad policy and bad politics.”
Click here for Philly.com's politics page.