15 environmental groups and the Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Council this week sent letters to Gov. Rendell opposing his plan to use $174 million in revenue from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to help balance the state's budget.
The funds were from leasing State Forest lands to companies drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation.
The 15 groups included:10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, Audubon Pennsylvania, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, Lancaster Farmland Trust, Natural Lands Trust, PennEnvironment, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, Pennsylvania Recreation and Park Society, Preservation Pennsylvania, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, The Nature Conservancy, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.*
The groups urgedGov. Rendell to respect nearly sixty years of precedent and reinvest revenue from drilling in the State Forests into the state’s green infrastructure – a move that will create jobs and real value.
However, there is precedent for taking DCNR funds to balance the budget in recent years.
In 2006 Gov. Rendell proposed making a "one-time" diversion from DCNR's Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation Fund to balance the budget. The final budget included a $52.7 million diversion from that Fund.
In 2007, Senate Republicans and Gov. Rendell agreed to use $40 million from the Keystone Fund to again balance the budget, but environmental groups were successful in defeating that attempt and there was no diversion.
In the last seven years, over $784 million in environmental funding from DCNR and the Department of Environmental Protection (including the recently proposed $174 million) has been diverted to either balance the budget or to provide funding for programs that could not get funding on their own. (See11/24/08 PA Environment Digest)
So far this budget year, Gov. Rendell also announced additional cuts to the budgets for DEP and DCNR totaling $18.4 million, including cutting two-thirds of the funding for DCNR's Infrastructure Mapping Project. (A list of the cuts is available online.)
This week's letter from the environmental groups said in part,“For more than a century, Pennsylvania’s governors, senators and representatives have invested in Pennsylvania’s future by building and maintaining a magnificent state park and forest system. When the General Assembly created the Oil and Gas Lease Fund in 1955, they committed a funding stream to reinvest in the magnificent system of public conservation lands they inherited from their predecessors. They showed respect for the generations yet to come, who deserved to inherit more than just empty gas and oil wells and degraded public lands.
“In 1955, Pennsylvania’s elected leaders recognized that when government allows oil or gas to be extracted from the state forests owned by the people of the Commonwealth, the government should reinvest the resulting revenues in our future – not in daily operations. They recognized that the revenues should be invested in green infrastructure to mitigate the environmental damage done from extracting drilling. They adopted a farsighted policy of taking the money from the sale of nonrenewable oil and gas resources owned by the state and reinvesting this money into public conservation assets that would last for generations.
“Through seven recessions and more than half a century, the Oil and Gas Lease Fund has been used to reinvest in Pennsylvania’s green infrastructure. It would be a great loss for the Fund to now be diverted to pay for day-to-day operations.”
The Commonwealth’s green infrastructure is a significant economic driver. It includes highly visited State Parks and trails and other outdoor recreational areas that support the state’s huge eco-tourism industry. In addition to generating tourism revenue, these amenities are free and available to the citizens of the Commonwealth.
“We strongly believe that the gas leasing revenues from our publicly-owned conservation areas should be dedicated to conservation purposes consistent with the intentions of the Oil and Gas Act and the needs brought about by the present recession to make capital investments in Pennsylvania’s future,” the letter continued.
The groups recognized “the very tough budgetary situation facing the Commonwealth,’ but urged the governor to use the money from Marcellus Shale drilling to invest in jobs and protect the state’s natural beauty, building on the “successful work done by the 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps and more recently, the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps.”
The groups emphasized that investing in the green infrastructure would not only protect the environment, but would also grow the economy.
“Our economy would benefit from the construction work and the associated jobs that would be created. The Commonwealth’s tourism, sporting and recreational businesses would also benefit preserving many retail and service sector jobs. … This important work would also supplement the investments that you’ve already made through the Growing Greener II bond program,” they reminded the governor.
The environmental leaders also included a list of proposed investments and unfunded projects under the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as part of their suggestions to the governor.
In closing, the environmental leaders said, “We look forward to working with you and members of the General Assembly to find the best solutions to the current financial crisis and to help get Pennsylvania’s economy back on track by investing in our green infrastructure and putting people to work.”
Clifford C. David, Jr., Chair of the DCNR Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Council, also sent a letter to Gov. Rendell on behalf of Council saying that by law the proceeds from the sale of mineral rights on State Forest lands must be placed in DCNR's Oil and Gas Lease Fund to be used by DCNR.
"The Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Council (CNRAC) recognizes the Commonwealth’s fiscal problems that the Governor and Legislature presently face. We believe that it is acceptable for portions of this $190 million to be re-directed from traditional Fund uses and to be used by DCNR to augment operational expenses during this time of economic hardship.
"We have heard of proposals to use $174 million of this Fund to offset some DCNR operational shortfalls, and we understand that this would be a temporary adjustment for this year only. However, we appeal for a significantly larger amount of these funds to be used and kept within the specifically-defined parameters of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund.
"Infrastructural improvements, environmental protection measures, key land acquisitions, etc., all remain for DCNR to address with diminishing sources of alternative funding. Delaying attention to these key issues will only cause the cost of such attention to increase with time. A well-considered balancing of present budgetary needs with traditional Oil and Gas Lease Fund project implementation is needed.
"Finally, we stress and strongly recommend that the language and the integrity of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund be maintained and upheld throughout any future discussions about the best use of the funds generated from this year’s Marcellus Shale gas lease sale on state forest lands."
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*Updated 12/15/08 Adding Chesapeake Bay Foundation