Rep. David Levdansky (D-Allegheny), Majority Chair of the House Finance Committee, and Rep. Ed Staback (D-Lackawanna), Majority Chair of the House Game and Fisheries Committee both denounced plans to accelerate the leasing of State Forest land for natural gas drilling.
Rep. Levdansky said it would require DCNR to lease out an additional 200,000 acres for natural gas drilling, which would be an unprecedented intrusion on the agency's mission to conserve forest lands. He added that this would amount to an environmental assault simply to gain a one-time grab of leasing revenue for the state's General Fund.
Of the 2.1 million acres of state forest land, only 1.5 million are within the Marcellus Shale region. He said 660,000 of those acres are already under other forms of lease and 595,000 are environmentally sensitive areas that cannot be leased. Levdansky said that only leaves approximately 225,000 acres of state forest land that could conceivably be leased.
He added that it would leave the state land looking like a checker board of drilling activity, fragmented by access roads, well heads and pipelines.
"As an avid hunter and angler, there is nothing more serene than walking through our forest from ridge to ridge, and enjoying its pristine, undisturbed natural state," Rep. Levdansky said. "But what's being proposed would force DCNR to lease what minimal acreage remains to 'drill, baby, drill.' Whether you are a hunter, hiker, camper or angler, you can't support the permanent fragmentation of what is our state's greatest natural asset."
House Game and Fisheries Committee Chairman Ed Staback (D-Lackawanna), added, "How many more acres need to be made available, given what is lost to the outdoor community with each new contract? With this proposal’s surrender of the last available wild lands in our state’s forest system, there will be nowhere left that could have remained untouched by drilling.
"Living in the Northeast, every day I see the remnants of the rush to get natural resources out of the ground. Without ironclad guarantees for reclaiming efforts and expenses coming from the gas companies, our state forests could be left with dangerous holes dotting the land, retaining ponds full of polluted water, and abandoned sheds, buildings and well structures."
Rep. Levdansky said the proposal would also raid the entire Oil and Gas Lease Fund, which collects revenues from leases on state land currently used to reinvest in the park system and to fund DCNR. It would redirect $145 million currently in the fund to the General Fund to help plug this year's budget shortfall.
"We would deplete this fund entirely, notwithstanding the $110 million backlog of maintenance and improvement projects that are ready to begin now," he said.
Even more troubling, he said, is that the proposal would eliminate the Oil and Gas Lease Fund and direct future leasing revenue permanently to the General Fund, forever jeopardizing DCNR's capability to manage and sustain what has historically been considered a model state park and forest system in the nation. He added that this was a fund created in 1955 as a restricted receipt fund and the current proposal would totally contradict the fund's original purpose.
"What is now on the table is a plan that would devastate our state forest system," Rep. Levdansky said. "It is the worst environmental policy proposal I have seen in my legislative career. We are going to raise two years worth of revenue, but the irreversible impact will haunt us forever."