Poll finds opposition to gas leases on public land

Gov. Tom Corbett's proposal to lease additional public lands for gas extraction has suffered through a bruising week in court and in the polls, but his chief energy adviser defended the plan as something that will be both financially and environmentally beneficial to the state.

"I think you can get folks to understand that this is a reasonable, limited proposition on leasing of publicly owned resources, putting it to use for the benefit of the public," Mr. Corbett's energy executive, Patrick Henderson, said in an interview this week.

The administration is trying to better explain and promote the plan amid growing signs of its unpopularity. On Friday, a Quinnipiac University poll found 57 percent of Pennsylvania voters oppose the executive order issued May 23 that allows for drilling under state parks and forests, and 39 percent said the policy makes them less likely to vote for the incumbent governor up for re-election this fall. The poll questions did not mention the executive order's protections against surface impacts.

Meanwhile, current and former officials in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said in three days of recent court testimony that Mr. Corbett, former Gov. Ed Rendell and the Legislature all made the decision to open up more public lands to drilling companies despite the clear reluctance -- and sometimes outright protests -- of the agency tasked with overseeing drilling in state forests.

The decision to open new land for leasing only in cases where the surface of state parks and forests will be preserved came after "a thoughtful, deliberative process" that stretched over years, Mr. Henderson said Thursday.

PG graphic: Pa. Poll
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And, he said, the governor's proposal allows Pennsylvania to benefit from gas extraction projects that would have occurred in a similar manner anyway on public and private land that is already leased to drillers.

Through informal "conversations over the back fence," drilling companies have made it clear to DCNR that they would be interested in accessing the gas beneath more state lands from well pads they already have under development nearby, Mr. Henderson said. A 2010 ban on any new leasing of lands managed by DCNR prohibited them from considering it.

"There are projects that make sense today that may not make sense in several years," he said. "There may be windows of opportunity. All this does is allow that conversation to be had."

Mr. Corbett has proposed raising $75 million for the upcoming budget by leasing gas resources during the next fiscal year. At DCNR's minimum bonus payment of $3,000 an acre, as many as 25,000 acres could be leased to meet that revenue goal.

About 700,000 acres in the state's 2.2-million-acre public forest system are already available for gas development, either through state-issued leases or in areas where the subsurface rights are privately owned.

DCNR will have discretion to evaluate each project as it is proposed, Mr. Henderson said. Projects will go forward if the department "believes that it is in the best interest."

"Nothing compels DCNR to issue a single lease," he said.

During testimony over the past two weeks in a Commonwealth Court case about the constitutionality of state lands leasing, former DCNR officials decried the way that governors and the General Assembly have directed their department to raise money through shale gas leases in order to fill budget holes.

Former DCNR Secretary Michael DiBerardinis said that practice, begun in 2009 under his boss at the time, Mr. Rendell, "destroys what I thought was the mission of the agency."

Penn State forestry professor James Grace, the chairman of DCNR's natural gas advisory committee and a former deputy secretary at DCNR, said a lease that forbids new surface disturbances is "certainly better" than one that allows it, but "any additional gas lease is going to have some impact."

Even Dan Devlin, the department's current deputy secretary for parks and forestry and the state's sole witness in court, said that although he is comfortable with the governor's restricted proposal, leasing more land "really isn't beneficial from an ecological standpoint. I guess it's beneficial from maybe an economic standpoint."

Mr. Henderson said the Corbett administration rejects the premise that "we would be accepting some level of environmental harm to our parks and forest systems" with the proposed leases.

"You are not going to see a tree removed, you are not going to see earth moved on the newly leased land," he said.

He suggested the leases will be environmentally beneficial in cases where the state will be able to use its influence in negotiations to get companies to put well pads on private land farther away from state lands.

He said the period between the announcement of the leasing proposal in February and the executive order last month gave the public time to debate the policy and the administration time to refine it.

"There is no doubt that Pennsylvanians hold their state parks and state forests in very high regard," Mr. Henderson said. "They've been well managed throughout administrations. We want to maintain that. We have, and will, maintain that."

Laura Legere: llegere@post-gazette.com. First Published June 6, 2014 9:37 AM

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