A caucus of 37 "green dog" and "hunting dog" legislators is barking mad about a Rendell administration budget proposal that would seek to raise $180 million by leasing more state forest land for Marcellus shale gas well drilling.
State Rep. David Levdansky, D-Forward, said the pro-environment and pro-hunting Democratic legislators in the conservation caucus are strongly opposed to leasing what could be another 50,000 to 80,000 acres of the state's forests for deep gas drilling beginning in July and will not compromise that position in upcoming budget negotiations.
"We're doing everything we can to stop this," said Mr. Levdansky, a member of the House Game and Fisheries Committee and chairman of the House Finance Committee. "To me this could be the worst environmental catastrophe I've seen in my 25 years in Harrisburg."
In a Feb. 3 letter to the governor, the legislators called for a moratorium on state forest land leasing until the "long-term environmental, fiscal, economic and social impacts" are studied and reviewed and requested a meeting with the governor on the issue.
According to the legislator's letter, at least 100 wells already are slated for drilling in state forests this year. And another 1,500 well pads containing 5,000 to 6,000 wells could be drilled in the next 10 years on the forest land leased in the last two years.
Mr. Levdansky said the proposed widespread drilling will fragment the forests with a checkerboard of drilling pads, pipelines and service roads, make the forests more susceptible to disease, damage endangered species habitat and allow invasive species to enter the state's forest ecosystems.
"Our state forests are the envy of the other states in the nation, a wonderful system, and now the governor wants to open them up for a short-term revenue gain. It's a travesty," he said.
Last year the state leased almost 32,000 acres of state forest land for gas well drilling, raising $60 million for the general fund and $68 million to 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 drilling rights for $166 million.
All told, a total of 660,000 acres of the state's 2.1 million-acre forest system already have already been leased for both shallow and deep gas and oil drilling.
Gary Tuma, a spokesman for the governor, said the plan to lease more state forest land was part of a two-year deal on gas rights leasing agreed to by the state's Republican and Democratic legislative caucuses last fall to generate needed general fund revenues. He said the governor agreed to it after the Legislature failed to support proposals to increase the personal income tax and a severance tax on natural gas from the Marcellus shale.
"The governor wasn't excited about leasing the state forest land," Mr. Tuma said. "But the decision has been made absent some other alternative revenue source."
But Mr. Levdansky said that, although the governor asked for a second year of forest leases in last year's budget negotiations, House Democratic leaders did not agree to that.
"If the governor isn't excited about leasing more forest land he shouldn't do it," Mr. Levdansky said. "He has other options. Let's get serious about putting a gas severance tax in place, that according to the governor could bring in $160 million to $180 million next year."
The legislators' letter praised the governor for once again supporting a severance tax on natural gas pumped from the Marcellus shale and said they would "fervently support" enactment of that tax. Mr. Rendell originally supported such a tax early last year but dropped his support during budget negotiations in the fall. Thirty-nine other states impose such a tax.
About 1.5 million acres of the 2.1 million acres of state forests are in the "Marcellus Zone" above the 5,000- to 8,000-foot-deep shale layer that underlies three-quarters of the state and could hold as much as 363 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to supply U.S. gas demands for 10 to 15 years.
Last month, Trout Unlimited, a national fishing and conservation organization, criticized Pennsylvania for last year's lease of 32,000 acres, calling it a "failure to protect public resources" that could have a detrimental effect on fish and wildlife habitat.
"We have already seen detrimental effects to water quality on our state forests and find this unacceptable," David Rothrock, president of the Pennsylvania Council of TU, said in a press release last month. "The state budget should not be balanced at the expense of hunters and anglers."
Statewide, approximately 2,500 Marcellus shale gas well drilling permits were issued from 2007 through 2009 by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which projects another 5,000 permits will be issued this year.
Developing the gas could bring billions of dollars into the state and create thousands of jobs, according to the gas industry and some state officials.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.