HARRISBURG - The reactions ranged from startled to silly. Was Gov. Corbett serious when he said Thursday that Pennsylvania college campuses situated over the Marcellus Shale could be opened to natural gas drilling?

Environmentalists conjured images of dirty, dangerous drill rigs sprawling across campus quadrangles. In newspaper website comment fields, readers asked, "Is he joking?"

Corbett was not joking.

An upstate legislator has already crafted a bill that would allow campus drilling. Preliminary talks with school officials have begun. And there is a model to work from: Oil and gas wells are nothing new on campuses and other public spaces out West.

Natural gas wells drilled in 2009 are generating millions in royalties for the University of Texas in Arlington. Multistory oil derricks sit just outside the front door of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Even in the western end of Pennsylvania, where the modern oil industry was born, Indiana University of Pennsylvania once powered its campus with natural gas from four wells.

Now Corbett, who wants to lift a moratorium on expanded gas drilling in state forests and open prison property to drilling, says the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserve could be a boon to state-supported colleges.

Those are the same schools whose funding he proposes to cut 50 percent to help offset the state's $4 billion deficit.

On Thursday, near Erie, in a speech to trustees from the 14 universities in the state system, Corbett said it was time to consider opening land to drilling on the six campuses within the shale reserve.

He reiterated the point Friday during a visit to the other end of the state.

Corbett, speaking to reporters after a tour of Chester Community Charter School, called drilling on campuses a "commonsense" move for a college if it had adequate room.

"I will tell you, we are looking at the prisons of Pennsylvania and the land that they have," he added.

Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the State System of Higher Education, said preliminary discussions had been taking place about using gas drilling to generate revenue for the system's universities.

Four of those schools are directly atop the shale: Mansfield, Lock Haven, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and California. Two others, Clarion and Slippery Rock, are on the edges of the reserve.

Because those colleges' lands are state-owned - as are the mineral rights - any income from such drilling would have to go into state coffers. That is, Marshall said, unless the law is changed to allow universities to keep gas royalties.

State Rep. Matt Baker (R., Tioga), whose district is in the heart of the Marcellus Shale drilling region, has introduced a bill that would permit the schools to retain 60 percent of the gas royalties, with the rest going to state-system universities that didn't host well sites. The proposal says schools could use the money to pay for capital projects and to improve energy efficiency.

"This would put them in a more modern era in terms of trying to find ways to be more self-sustaining," said Baker, who also serves on the state college system's Board of Governors. "Most universities do a fair amount of fund-raising, and if they have a tremendous natural resource underneath them, it makes sense that they would try to take advantage of it."

Some academics and environmentalists promptly condemned the idea. Robert Myers, director of environmental studies and a professor of English at Lock Haven University, said he had been thoroughly disgusted when he heard of Corbett's comments.

"It suggests how detached from reality he is," said Myers, who supports a moratorium on drilling. "The thought of exposing our students to an industry with such a long record of accidents is appalling. They've had fires. They've had explosions. They've had spills of tens of thousands of dangerous chemicals. Perhaps we can bring in logging crews to cut down trees to bring in more dollars."

David Masur, executive director of the advocacy group PennEnvironment, likened the proposal to "turning off someone's heat in the middle of winter and then telling them to stay warm by lighting their house on fire."

No Pennsylvania State University land, either at its 8,500-acre University Park campus or its branches, is within the exploration area for the shale, a spokeswoman said.

But Penn State president Graham Spanier, who has blasted Corbett for proposing what he called crippling cuts in aid, offered a more muted, positive reaction to the idea of campus drilling: "We are supportive of the concept," he said in a statement.

And officials at one north Texas school have only good things to say about gas drilling.

The University of Texas at Arlington took advantage of its location atop the Barnett Shale, a deep reserve expected to produce large quantities of natural gas much like the Marcellus.

"We're on a sweet spot, and it's been very good," spokeswoman Kristin Sullivan said. "We've worked hard to be sensitive to our neighbors and do what we can to minimize disruptions."

In 2009 the college leased land to a driller on the southeast corner of the 400-acre campus. Since then, the university has received $7 million in royalty payments that have funded scholarships, helped with faculty recruitment, and provided matching funding for private donations.

Sullivan said that during the first six months of drilling there had been heavy truck traffic and noise but that afterward, most of the activity had gone underground. Today, she said, all that's visible at the landscaped pad site are some pipes and valves.

At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where four gas wells powered the campus in the late 1970s and into the '80s, spokeswoman Michelle Fryling said, "We are certainly appreciative of the governor's comments about how the universities need to think outside the box on ways to generate new revenues."

But before any final decisions are made, Fryling said, "we would need to study it very carefully."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.
Inquirer staff writer Kristin Holmes contributed to this article.