A drill too far: Corbett takes protection away from sensitive lands

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In lifting a four-year-old ban, Gov. Tom Corbett tried to be careful last week in saying what kind of drilling activity could occur at newly opened acres in state parks and forests. But he wasn’t careful enough — he should have left the moratorium in place.

Although 700,000 acres of state forest land is already available for gas drilling and oil and gas wells have piped $582 million in the last five years into the state budget, Mr. Corbett is allowing more wilderness to be leased for exploration to help the state erase a year-end deficit. The executive order he issued Friday ends the protection given by his predecessor, Gov. Ed Rendell, to 800,000 acres.

Mr. Rendell set those public lands aside, while allowing others to be drilled, because they contain old growth forests, host fragile ecosystems or provide habitats for rare and endangered species. With all the opportunity for drilling on or under other state lands, this was a sensible boundary to keep.

Mr. Corbett’s order allows drilling only under the new lands and maintains a moratorium on any additional gas leasing “that involves long-term surface disturbance, such as placing well pads, roads or pipelines in the newly leased areas.” That’s good as far as it goes, but state officials will be free to interpret what kind of activity constitutes “long-term surface disturbance” — risky business when dealing with vulnerable acreage.

While the Post-Gazette supports drilling for natural gas under Allegheny County’s Deer Lakes Park, we draw a line against it in more sensitive areas such as these state lands, where the potential environmental harm can be wide-ranging and irreversible.

Pennsylvanians can understand Mr. Corbett seeking an extra $75 million from drilling to cut the state deficit, but given the need to balance all public desires — for jobs, revenue and protected wild lands — he should have looked somewhere else.

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