Friday, September 23, 2011

More gas drilling ahead for Pa's federal and state forests

Gas drilling in Pennsylvania's Tioga State Forest -- PennFuture photo

Environmentalists, conservationists and others opposed to natural gas drilling in state and federal forests have  been dealt a stinging defeat as a U.S. appeals court ruled that the owners of mineral rights in a national forest in Pennsylvania don't have to wait for an environmental study before drilling.

The 3rd U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a Pennsylvania district court's ruling that mineral rights owners don't have to wait for an environmental impact study from the U.S. Forest Service to start drilling in the Allegheny National Forest, according to a report by the Platts news service.

The U.S. Forest Service in 2009 opted to call for a long-term environmental impact assessment of the national forest as part of a settlement with the Sierra Club and other advocacy groups.

The Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association and other groups sued to return to 1980 measures that require a 60-day notice before drilling operations begin.

The federal appeals court upheld the lower court's decision, saying the owners of mineral rights would suffer an undue burden while waiting years for the EIS.

Natural gas production from the Marcellus shale gas play in Pennsylvania was reported at 1.87 billion cubic feet per day during the first half of 2011, a 22 percent increase over production reported in the second half of 2010.

Corbett planning to drill Pennsylvania out of debt?

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported today that the Republican administration of Gov. Tom Corbett is considering the expansion of gas drilling in forests and other state-owned land.

"Gov. Tom Corbett's administration in Harrisburg is considering leasing more state land, though there are no firm plans at the moment, said Corbett spokesman Eric Shirk.

"The January 2010 lease sale under former (Department of Natural Resources and Conservation) Sec. (John) Quigley included 18,000 acres of ecologically sensitive wild and natural areas which can only be accessed underground and which brought in $128 million for taxpayers," wrote Patrick Henderson, Gov. Corbett's energy executive, in e-mailed comments. "Done correctly, it is possible to develop our commonwealth's natural resources while ensuring the protection of our public lands."
About 800,000 acres of the 1.5 million acres of state land in the Marcellus fairway are unleased. Most of the unleased land either is in ecologically sensitive areas or cannot be accessed without cutting through those areas, according to a study by the DCNR.

The state forests have a long history of hosting other drilling and mining, but the Marcellus rush has only just begun. The Marcellus wells there have nearly doubled over the past year to 175. Another 125 to 150 will go in next year on land already under lease, department spokespeople said. Initial department estimates posted on its website had figured for nearly 6,500 wells on nearly 1,100 well pads. 
The push is for money. Once a seven-figure trickle, the state's Oil and Gas Lease Fund has exploded from new oil and gas money. It earned a combined $444.1 million in 2009 and 2010, more than double what it made in its previous 61-year history, according to department figures.

"I knew this was opening Pandora's box. It was too successful, and the numbers were just staggering," said Quigley, who helped oversee the last round of leasing under then-Gov. Ed Rendell. "I can't criticize Gov. Corbett for doing the same thing my boss did. ... The danger is that some could look to the state forest as a way out of financial problems, as easy money."

DCNR expects to bring in a record of $58 million in rent and royalties alone in the 2011-12 fiscal year, spokeswoman Christina Novak said.

Last month, Gov­er­nor Corbett’s Sec­re­tary of Eco­nomic and Com­mu­nity Devel­op­ment, Alan Walker, said that increased drilling in Pennsylvania’s state forests could bring in “close to $60 bil­lion” over the next three decades. ““That allows us to solve just about every eco­nomic prob­lem we have that is hang­ing out there, he said, "includ­ing un-funded pen­sion lia­bil­ity and infra­struc­ture prob­lems." .

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OK to drill in Pa. forest, court rules 

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