The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced in 2010 that the state needed to stop leasing additional forest land or it would inflict significant damage to the local ecosystem. It issued a report stating that any additional expansion of fracking in the region would have long-term repercussions on the health and productivity of the state’s forests and wild plants.
Of Pennsylvania’s 1.5 million acres of forested land growing on the Marcellus Shale, the state was then leasing 700,000 for hydraulic fracking.
Former governor Ed Rendell (D) took heed of the Department’s warning, and in 2010 issued a moratorium on any new developments on state park property. Although he had supported fracking initiatives for their economic benefits, he stated that the rapid expansion of industrial activity had left little of the state untouched and sought to protect what remained.
Since the moratorium was instated, Pennsylvania has become the third-highest gas producing state in the nation thanks to increased fracking of the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits, and natural gas production is an essential component of the state’s economy.
Looking for a share of the profits, the forested lands’ mineral rights owners are now eager to sign lease agreements with fracking companies. Thus the state, which controls only surface rights for most of the land, finds itself between a rock and a hard place.
Current governor Tom Corbett (R) has introduced the idea of opening the remaining forested area to development in his proposed state budget. It claims the untapped land – some 800,000 acres – could produce up to $75 million in revenue annually, and move Pennsylvania easily up to the United States’ second-highest producer of natural gas.
Supporters of the new proposal claim the ecological impact would be negligible. Pat Henderson, Gov. Corbett’s chief of staff on energy, has said an executive order banning development that disturbs the forest’s surface is planned. Instead, he says, companies will expand the infrastructure of existing taps and drill into new underground areas horizontally.
This will also mean that, if only the mineral rights owners are willing to make deals for underground expansion, the state will have no power to block development or receive compensation from fracking companies.
Environmental advocates have already begun taking action against the proposal. Last Thursday, members of the Marcellus Shale Earth First! activist group simultaneously blocked Anadarko Petroleum Corporation workers from operations in Tiadaghton state park for 6 hours and staged a protest outside the company’s Williamsport headquarters. Five people were arrested in connection with the protest and were committed to Lycoming county prison on charges of reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct, failure to disperse and blocking a public roadway.
Preservationists are unhappy that the increased revenue would go to the state’s general fund instead of to its conservation programs, and doubt the claims that further development would be impact-free.