Injunction sought to block additional drilling under Pennsylvania parks and forests

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HARRISBURG -- A former secretary and deputy secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources testified in Commonwealth Court on Wednesday that more state natural lands should not be opened for gas extraction without further study of the impacts of the drilling already underway.

James Grace, former deputy secretary for parks and forests, and John Quigley, former secretary of DCNR, both in the Rendell administration, spoke as witnesses for an environmental group that wants a judge to grant an injunction to prevent the state from using money from past and future gas leases on state park and forest lands to help balance the upcoming budget.

Gov. Tom Corbett plans to raise $75 million in the next fiscal year by leasing an undetermined number of acres under state parks and forests for gas extraction. His budget proposal also calls for using $117 million in oil and gas royalties from existing wells to fund DCNR's operations.

The two men testified that past leases set a "disturbing" precedent and implied that future leases would only compound the potential harm. They said DCNR was directed to issue leases in 2009 and 2010, despite the agency's clear recommendation against it.

Mr. Quigley testified he was "apoplectic and heartbroken" when he learned as secretary in 2009 that money from leases would be moved from a special DCNR-controlled fund for conservation projects to the general fund to help balance the budget.

The application for a preliminary injunction is part of a larger case brought by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation over whether the state can divert oil and gas revenues from the special conservation fund and use it for other purposes, such as filling budget gaps. The foundation wants the court to bar the state from leasing any more land until a judge has ruled on the larger case.

An attorney representing the governor led Mr. Grace through pages of terms contained in DCNR's standard gas lease to demonstrate how protective the contract is. "It is the most comprehensive gas lease there is," Mr. Grace said. "I know this is as good as it gets." But he added that a strict lease will not prevent drilling from causing cumulative impacts to the forests that cannot yet be measured.

A decision for the environmental group would complicate negotiations as the General Assembly works to overcome a projected $1 billion budget shortfall and pass a spending plan by the end of June.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Monday afternoon.

Laura Legere:

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