As demands for energy resources boom, Pa. wildlife agencies manage new demands on human resources
February 3, 2013 5:00 AM
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission
A Fish and Boat Commission researcher takes a water sample during a permit application review.
By John Hayes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On two small tracts of wetlands and second-growth scrub brush in Lawrence County, State Game Land 150 offers 586 acres of nothing much.
No old-growth forest or Class A waters. No endangered species. No shooting ranges or trails for horses, bikes or snowmobiles -- not even an access road that hunters might use during deer season. It's two small parcels of favorable wildlife habitat in the Pennsylvania Game Commission's 1.4 million-acre state game land system, a program largely paid for through hunting license dollars and administered to provide public places to hunt.
Thousands of feet below SGL 150, a shale vein holds an unknown quantity of natural gas. The state doesn't own the mineral rights, but last year the Game Commission accepted bids for non-surface use of the parcel -- for a fee an energy company can harvest the gas from an adjacent property provided there are no drilling pads, no access roads, no impact of any kind on the game land.
Laws providing for the safe harvest of natural gas require the Game Commission and state Fish and Boat Commission to conduct application reviews, oversight and enforcement of impacts on fish, wildlife and habitat; aquatic resources, pad and road construction, blasting permits, water withdrawal and disposal, drilling, hydro-fracking, pipeline construction, compressor stations, post-extraction land rehabilitation, legal reviews, mounds and mounds of paper work and more.
Wildlife agency representatives say hunter and angler dollars amount to a small share of those costs, and the commissions are getting better at managing workloads to insure that wildlife and sportsmen aren't given short shrift.
"For hunters to worry their license dollars are going to manage oil, gas and minerals, that might have been true in the late '90s and early 2000s," said Mike DiMatteo, Game Commission chief of environmental planning. "But right now the new funding that's coming in is paying for the staff time."
In the 2011-12 fiscal year the Game Commission's $85.5 million budget includes $25 million from oil and gas leases, bonuses, mining royalties and rights of way.
With less property and fewer energy-extraction leases, the smaller Fish and Boat Commission and its 400 employees were hit hard when the Marcellus Shale gas boom began in 2005. In an interview last year, executive director John Arway said human resources had been strained.
In 2012 the state legislature passed Act 13, which funnels $1 million per year to Fish and Boat to be used for permit reviews related to unconventional gas well drilling. Dave Spotts, chief of the Environmental Services Division, said the new money is being applied where it's needed most.
"We added a new Natural Gas section," he said. "We hired a section chief and three area biologists. The money also goes to offset administrative work, including blasting permit applications and the Fisheries Management department's unassessed waters program."
Spotts said the agency set up a pre-application system as part of its commitment to process all permits within 30 days.
"For the permit reviews, the Act 13 money is good," said Spotts. "John [Arway] is still trying to get money to pay for enforcement."
Fish and Boat has received about $4 million in leases from its several gas drilling sites -- the revenue is allocated to impoundments in need of safety repairs. The agency's annual budget is about $60 million.
Call it public relations or genuine partnerships, but some larger energy companies continue to work with state wildlife agencies and conservation groups after the work is done.
Consol Energy has 37,000 acres enrolled in the Game Commission's public access program and leaves additional legacy sites unposted and open for hunters, anglers and hikers. Dave Bojtos, manager of dispositions for Consol's CNX Land Resources, said it's part of the overall extraction plan.
"It's not a cheap objective, but it goes into our planning," he said. "When we initially look at these properties, we look at what we can do after the resources have been extinguished, or after we put a gas line in."
Bojtos said Consol buys wildlife seed mixtures from the National Wild Turkey Federation to plant wildlife food plots on some rights of way and former work sites. In 2011 Consol covered 100 to 150 acres of disturbed footage with food plots, turning the acreage, he said, "into a desired destination for a lot of sportsmen in the region."