Rendell and gas drilling: too little, too late

Gov. Rendell signs an order banning new leasing of state forests for gas drilling. State official John Quigley is at right.

Gov. Rendell’s order banning natural-gas drilling in 1.5 million acres of state forest sounded impressive until you drill below the surface.

The governor’s executive order can be reversed in a Republican heartbeat. If GOP candidate Tom Corbett wins the governor’s race on Tuesday, the needed ban will be only a blip on the drilling boom in Pennsylvania.

The barn door has been open for all but the final two months of Rendell’s tenure. He and the state legislature have allowed the leasing of nearly 140,000 acres of state forest since 2008 for methane drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation.

The state has received more than $400 million in lease payments, or about $3,000 per acre (payments to private landowners vary, with some receiving as much as $5,000 per acre). A total of 700,000 acres of state forest are now available to gas drilling, or nearly one-third of all state forests. Drilling has been allowed on state forest land for nearly 60 years.

Even a moratorium isn’t likely to halt the environmental impact of drilling on or near public lands, because the state lacks the mineral rights to much of the property.

Pennsylvania does not own the subsurface rights to about 80 percent of its state parks, according to a recent report on Marcellus drilling by National Geographic Online (www.

State officials say there may be little they can do to prevent gas development in these recreation areas. And there’s nothing to prevent drillers from leasing property immediately adjacent to state and federal park land, either.
The rapid expansion of drilling is changing the character of some forests already.

There are currently 15 Marcellus wells on state forest land in north-central Pennsylvania, with the possibility of 1,000 more drilling sites. Each “well pad” requires four to six acres, meaning more trees will be cut down.

Drillers are not only extracting a valuable state resource; they are impacting the environment in ways that state officials are still learning. In spite of this burden on public lands and public infrastructure, the legislature still can’t agree on a production tax on drillers to pay for such costs.

Rendell has rightly encouraged drilling for its economic impact and the advantages of clean domestic energy. But the proper balancing of environmental concerns has been late to the table.