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Can Pennsylvania's State Forests Survive Additional Marcellus Shale Drilling?

  • Scott Detrow
A drilling rig in the Tioga Staet Forest

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drilling rig in the Tioga Staet Forest

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drilling rig in the Tioga State Forest

Pennsylvania is strapped for cash. The state has run billion dollar-plus deficits for three straight years. But since 2009, royalties and bonus payments from Marcellus Shale drilling in state forests have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars.  Some officials say additional drilling is the solution to the commonwealth’s financial problems. That’s raising the ire of people like Butch Davey, who worry additional leasing would damage the forests forever.

Davey loves the woods. The 72-year-old gets visibly excited as he turns his black pickup truck  – a truck with a Smokey the Bear head on its antenna —  into the state forest.  “I just have a favorite forest,” he says, as he motors down a gravel road, “and that’s the Sproul. I think this is one of the special spots in the state.”
The Sproul covers 476 square miles. It’s Pennsylvania’s largest state forest, and Davey ran it for 21 of the 41 years he spent with the Bureau of Forestry.

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Butch Davey stands next to a drilling pad in the Sproul State Forest

But the Sproul has changed since Davey retired in 2003. More often than not, visits make him sad these days. That’s because of natural gas drilling. Dozens of Marcellus Shale wells have been drilled here in the last three years. More are being approved at a rapid pace, especially since about 2,700 additional acres of the forest were leased for drilling in 2010.
The 4 acres well pads turn the forest into a construction zone. They look like big gravel parking lots, with trailers, water trucks and drilling equipment parked on top. “Looks pretty grim, doesn’t it?” asks Butch as he drives past one site. “A lot of trees died back here.”
Drilling on state forest land isn’t new. It’s been taking place since 1947. In fact, when Davies became Sproul’s district forester, one of the first things he had to deal with was a new gas lease. “A small wildcat driller drilled a well down in a place called council run,” he recalls, “and they found a very good gas well. On track 231 well 1. I can remember it well. Because I had just come up here in 1982, and low and behold, we were in the gas business.”

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A four-acre well pad in the Tioga State Forest

The shallow gas wells the dot the Sproul, but they’re small – about the size of a single gas pump, with a home air conditioning unit plunked down next to it. The Marcellus sites, with their acres of cleared land, dozens of trucks, and rigs stretching high into the sky, dwarf the older wells.
And it’s not just the wells that are bigger – it’s the revenue, too. From 1947 to 2009, lease payment and gas royalties put about 150 million dollars into Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund.
That figure doubled on the very first day of Marcellus leases, in 2009. (For a year-by-year look at the fund’s annual revenue, scroll to the bottom of this post.)

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A less intrusive shallow gas well in the Sproul

“My heart was just in my throat,” recalls former Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary John Quigley, who was working as DCNR’s chief-of-staff during the January 2009 sale. “The first bid we opened was 38 million dollars. And in that afternoon, the total winning bids on that 74-thousand acre lease sale was 198 million dollars.”
The new revenue terrified him. “That kind of free money is just enormously tempting,” Quigley recalled.
His fears proved correct: Democratic Governor Ed Rendell and state lawmakers and took more than $399 million from the fund to help balance the next two budgets, forcing more lease sales in the process.
Click here for statistics and maps of the land DCNR has leased out for Marcellus and traditional gas drilling. 
Quigley points out until 2009, oil and gas revenue had been reserved for conservation, flood control and recreation purposes. “Portions of 30 state parks were purchased with Oil and Gas Lease money. Dams were built, park and forest roads and other buildings were built.
Granted, before Marcellus Shale, the fund was only getting between two and four million dollars a year. By 2015, the Corbett Administration predicts the fund will make about $300 million a year.
Republican Governor Tom Corbett has not called for additional leasing, yet. But this summer, his secretary of Community and Economic Development, Alan Walker, said turning additional land over to drillers could bring in 60 billion dollars over the next three decades. “That allows us to solve just about every economic problem we have that is hanging out there,” he told Capitolwire. “Including unfunded pension liability, infrastructure problems. In my opinion, we would be foolish not to use that money.”
More than 700,000 acres of forest land have already been leased – about twenty percent of that for Marcellus pads. A DCNR study predicts more than 1,000 drilling rigs may dot the forests, once production is at full capacity. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post to read the full DCNR report.)

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

That would lead to “death by a million mosquito bites,” according to Jim Weaver. It’s Weaver’s job to think about the future: he’s the planner in Tioga County, a drilling hotbed. Weaver argues northeast Pennsylvania has a long history of causing long-term environmental damage, for short-term gain.  “You know, in the 1800s, our first extraction occurred, with the timber,” he says. “And they took every tree out of this country. There were no trees. And we have photos that the mountains were bare. And then they came and took the coal.”
Driving through Tioga State Forest, Weaver says he knows the country needs natural gas. And he can personally vouch for the Marcellus Shale’s benefits. Two of his three sons hold drilling-related jobs – along with what seems like nearly everyone else in the region. “If you’re not working in Tioga County now, it’s because you don’t want a job,” he argues.
But Weaver wants state officials to just slow down the pace, when it comes to drilling in the forests.  “I can say this easily by a quote from a gas worker. ‘I want to be able to go somewhere where I can’t smell my job.’ I don’t think you need to say anything more.
Corbett’s economic development secretary, Alan Walker, says the trees will grow back. “It’s a minimum impact on the state forest property, and in a matter of a couple years, it’s going to be re-vegetated.”

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Roadside ferns covered with dust in the Sproul

That’s not how retired ranger Butch Davey sees it, as he stands on the edge of a four-acre well pad, looking at 40-foot oaks to his left, and gravel to his right. He’s asked how long it would take for the trees to grow back to their full height, once the land is reclaimed. His blunt answer: “It would take 75 years at least. Maybe longer. It would depend whether you could get trees to grow in here or not.”
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is doing what it can to regulate drilling – it holds energy companies to 156 pages of guidelines, regulating everything from well placement to what hours drilling is allowed. (You can read the full document below.)
But Davey and others worry even the most careful drilling possibly might endanger the forests for those future generations, as long as acres at a time are being turned into industrial sites.

Oil and Gas Lease Fund Revenue, From 1947 To 2010

DCNR’s Drilling Guidelines

DCNR’s Impact Study on Future Leasing

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