Thursday, May 29, 2014

Former Rendell Officials Now Say Marcellus Natural Gas Drilling Exploited State Forests

StateImpact, the Patriot-News, Post-Gazette and the Citizens Voice Thursday reported former DCNR officials in the Rendell Administration now say the leasing of 137,000 acres of State Forest land for drilling exploited State Forests as a “cash cow.”
The remarks were made during the first day of arguments before Commonwealth Court in a lawsuit the PA Environmental Defense Fund filed against the Rendell and Corbett Administrations over the transfer over $383 million in proceeds in DCNR’s Oil and Gas Fund to balance the state General Fund. provided a preview of the Court hearing Tuesday.
The newspapers reported testimony and documents entered into evidence for the lawsuit said Michael DiBerardinis, Rendell's DCNR Secretary at the time, sent Rendell a memo on March 27,  2009,  in which he told the governor: "Wholesale leasing will damage our State Forest landscape. It would scar the economic, scenic, ecological, and recreational values of the forest - especially the most wild and remote areas of our state in the Pennsylvania Wilds."
Jim Grace, former State Forester with DCNR noted the Rendell leases in 2010 set "a terrible precedent" by ordering the exploitation of the state forest for quick cash regardless of the impacts.
"It's dictating from outside how many acres should be developed without considering any of the other uses," said Grace, which flies in the face of the mission of DCNR and might possibly violate the state's role of trustee of the public resources under the terms of Article 1 Section 27 of the state constitution.
Former DCNR Secretary John Quigley under Rendell  echoed Grace: "We determined (additional leasing) was not in the best interests of the Commonwealth, and yet we were ordered to do two more rounds of leasing."
Quigley added a provision inserted in the 2009 Fiscal Code requiring more leasing of State Forest land to generate $180 million in revenue to balance the state budget was "an effective repeal of the 1955 oil and gas lease fund act.”
"We were being forced to raise almost another quarter billion dollars without regard to the agency's mission," said Quigley. "The governor and General Assembly were coming very close to slaughtering the cash cow."
Quigley and DCNR did offer another 31,968 acres of State Forest for leasing in November of 2009.
He said in a press release at the time, "Our approach to making state lands available for natural gas drilling has always been to limit the impact on the surface and on other uses of the land. We've been exceptionally mindful of our obligations as we developed this plan to balance our environmental responsibilities and the budget."
He went on to explain, that "For about a year, DCNR has been working to prepare a lease sale. We chose these tracts of land after extensive environmental reviews to protect the health of the forest now and in the future, to allow for gas and timber extraction and public recreation, and to keep ecosystems intact that support a diversity of wildlife and plants. In total, these tracts represent a little more than 1.5 percent of our total state forest land.”
During a hearing of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in 2009 after the announcement of additional acreage for leasing, Quigley said DCNR does not have the resources to police State Forest Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling as it ramps up over the next few years.
In March of 2010 the PA Environmental Defense Fund gave notice of its intent to file a lawsuit to prevent the leasing and transfer of funds saying, "The Foundation believes and avers that your (Rendell Administration’s) proposal to lease additional State Forest land to supplement the Budget for the Commonwealth for the year 2010 with $180,000,000 is a decision that will risk the ecological integrity of our State Forest system and is therefore an unlawful decision by you under Article I, Section 27 of Pennsylvania's Constitution,” John Childe, attorney for the PA Environmental Defense Fund, explained.
He added, "This Amendment provides self-executing rights to all the people of the Commonwealth, and enumerates a duty as trustee over Pennsylvania's public lands, for the benefit of all the people of the Commonwealth.  As governor of the Commonwealth you bear the specific responsibility for ensuring the rights and protection set forth in this Amendment.  These rights are mandatory, not discretionary.  You do not have the authority to violate them.
"As you know, the purpose of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund, the legislatively created fund where money from leasing state lands for oil and gas exploration is required to be invested, is to protect and preserve the Commonwealth's State Forest System and not to supplement the State Budget.
"As you are also aware, there is no need to require additional leasing of State Forest land.  The imposition of a Severance Tax would more than make up for the proposed leasing.”
The Defense Fund actually filed the lawsuit in March of 2012.
The practice of supporting State Park and State Forest operations through transfer from the OIl and Gas Fund begun under the Rendell Administration was continued under Gov. Corbett who proposed in February to transfer up to $75 million from the Oil and Gas Fund to support park and forest operations.
The Commonwealth Court hearing is to resume on Monday and Tuesday.
Bumsted: Handicapping A Shale Extraction Tax

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