The head of Pennsylvania's Department of Community and Economic Development has said the state could receive additional revenues totaling $60 billion in the next 30 years and solve all of its economic problems if it would allow new Marcellus Shale gas well drilling throughout its publicly owned forests.
The remarks by Alan Walker, secretary of the DCED, were made in an interview with Capitolwire, an online news service focusing on state government, and reported Tuesday.
According to the article based on a wide-ranging interview about Marcellus Shale development in the state, Mr. Walker acknowledged that getting $60 billion in revenue would require leasing drilling rights under much of the state's forests, but he said he wasn't concerned about any environmental impacts.
Mr. Walker is quoted in the article as saying, "The way the drilling platforms are being set up today -- where you may only have to have one pad every so many square miles -- it's a minimum impact on the state forest property, and in a matter of a couple of years, it's going to be revegetated."
Mr. Walker's statements run contrary to a state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources analysis of gas well drilling on state forest land done in August 2010 that found "no additional leasing involving surface disturbance can occur without significantly altering the ecological integrity and wild character of our state forest system."
Environmental organizations and some Democratic state legislators also condemned the idea. State Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, Democratic Policy Committee chairman, termed Mr. Walker's comments "outrageous" and said additional drilling would cause "forest fragmentation lasting for 100 years."
Paul King, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, a mainstream statewide environmental organization, said in a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett that the proliferation of shale drilling rigs, pipelines and compressor stations "would be devastating to our state forests" and the impacts would last for generations.
"To use our state forests as an expedient means to generate new revenues, when there are a multitude of options including but not limited to a severance tax, is wholly inappropriate," Mr. King wrote, noting that the forests are already big economic assets for their timber production, tourism and recreation. "These lands belong to the people of Pennsylvania."
Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a statewide environmental organization that has been active on Marcellus Shale drilling issues, called on Mr. Corbett to "repudiate" Mr. Walker's comments.
"This is the most irresponsible proposal by a public official in decades," said Jan Jarrett, PennFuture president and chief executive officer. "It would destroy our forests, converting them into large industrial wastelands."
PennFuture said widespread expansion of drilling in the state's forests would damage the state's forest economy, which is responsible for 90,000 jobs in 3,000 companies, and would also hurt the $33 billion-a-year tourist trade.
In response to reporters' questions, Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying Mr. Walker's remarks reflected his opinion and position.
"[Mr. Walker] was speaking as someone who is in charge of economic development," Mr. Harley said. "He wasn't speaking on behalf of the governor."
He added that Mr. Corbett would take into consideration both economic and environmental factors before moving forward on any future lease sale, but no additional leasing of forestland is in the works.
In 2009, the state leased almost 32,000 acres of state forest land for Marcellus Shale gas well drilling, raising $60 million for the general fund and $68 million for the oil and gas fund. In 2008, the state broke a five-year moratorium on forest land leasing and auctioned off 74,000 acres of gas drilling rights for $166 million.
A total of 660,000 acres of the state's 2.1 million-acre forest system have been leased for shallow and deep gas and oil drilling. The state owns about 85 percent of the mineral rights under its forests.
An executive order banning additional leases, signed by then-Gov. Ed Rendell in October 2010, remains in place, though Mr. Corbett has said he would be willing to lift that ban.