Energy. Environment. Economy.

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

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


  • csd

    Re-vegetated in a few years – with WHAT? Non-native invasive plants such as garlic mustard and multiflora rose? These plants evolved to rapidly exploit disturbed sites – such as the heavy industrial sites that are Marcellus gas well pads. The invasive non-natives which are already costing the United States 138 BILLION dollars/year?

    • Carlos

      Actually the site has to be reclaimed within 90 days of finishing the well, and stable vegitiation must be 70%

      • Concerned

        stable vegetation is not the point. Each well opens turns pristine, forest land, is disturbed land and subject to invasives from “edge conditions” look it up and learn.

      • Greg Hornsby

        not at all true Carlos….a little grass seed on the flanks of a well pad is not re-vegetation.

    • jt

      Thank you for bringing this point up. I laughed out loud that someone could think an area of a state forest could revegetate in a matter of years. Ridiculous. Think of all of the native species both plants and animals that cannot compete with invasive ones as you stated. Anyone that did five minutes of research on the topic would know that an ecosystem can’t just revegetate to it’s previous state in a matter of years.

  • Briget Shields

    “The Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion and Nat­ural Resources is doing what it can to reg­u­late drilling – it holds energy com­pa­nies to 156 pages of guide­lines,” Yet they haven’t done NOT ONE Environmental Impact Study on any of these wells…..wanna know why? BECAUSE THEY KNOW THEY WOULD FAIL and they wouldn’t be allowed to do what they are doing. Everyone wants jobs and a better economy, but not at the cost of clean air, clean water and a healthy environment to spend all that money in!

    • Lkleo

      Well said. If the earth suffers, we suffer. If it dies, we die. We could conceivably go the way of the dinosaur if this type of greed doesn’t end. How do people not see this? People in support of this drilling are like drug addicts getting high off of money, but fail to see the harmful effects of this high.

    • Carlos

      Well said based on no facts whatsoever!

      • Blahblahblah Book

        Are you serious!!!! Try looking on the EPA website, search fracting: Over 75 years of information showing the dangers of this type of drilling. READ BEFORE YOU SPEAK!!!!

  • Briget Shields

    “The Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion and Nat­ural Resources is doing what it can to reg­u­late drilling – it holds energy com­pa­nies to 156 pages of guide­lines,” Yet they haven’t done NOT ONE Environmental Impact Study on any of these wells…..wanna know why? BECAUSE THEY KNOW THEY WOULD FAIL and they wouldn’t be allowed to do what they are doing. Everyone wants jobs and a better economy, but not at the cost of clean air, clean water and a healthy environment to spend all that money in!

  • Greg Hornsby

    Additional drilling in State Forests is a terrible idea. Such action effectively transfers use of the forest from the public to private interests. Keep in mind that ALL costs associated with this action would remain the responsibility of the public. Use of those forests would belong first and foremost to the drilling companies….forever. That’s a long time. Many mistakenly believe that the well pads, more than 1100 of them, and the miles of truck roads and the thousands of miles of forests converted to pipelines would be reclaimed and re-forested. Look around…where has one inch of pipeline ever been re-forested? How many access roads would be re-forested? The answer is NONE, NOT ONE. And as for the much touted re-vegetation of well pads…that only includes the flanks of the pads that are still earth covered…not the stone covered pads. Throughout Pennsylvania there many long-ago drilled wells…..many are replete with discarded tanks and pipes….junk that the state has to clean-up at the taxpayer expense. In case you did not know the funding for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry has been cut and re-cut, especially under the Corbett Administration. The bureau cannot even maintain a modicum of road maintenance…one drive in the Asaph state forest will confirm that. All of this cutting has put the management of our most important resource in serious jeopardy. Further drilling will exacerbate this scenario as paid-off politicians bow more and more to drillers.

    The fact is that state forests are not a cash cow for corrupt officials. State Forests are not the answer to our budget problems. Opening state forests to further gas leasing will devastate the intended and mandated uses of them as spelled out in their charter. Pennsylvanians must use every avenue to stop the Corbett administration from this horrible act. Corbett took close to a million dollars from gas drillers…do you really believe the drillers don’t expect more in return? Investors want a huge return on expenditures and you can bet that Corbett has promised to steal this from taxpayers and provide that return for the drillers.

    • p reilly

      “Such action effectively transfers use of the forest from the public to private interests.” This is exactly right. And maybe that’s the way we have to explain it to the public. The political Right has taught the public to fear the word ‘socialism’. So we should frame this action – leasing more state forest – as giving to corporate America while ‘socializing’ the costs. Yes, the corporations take all the profits while the cost is socialized among every citizen of the state! We all own those forests. It truely is a form of socialism and much worse that requiring everyone to have health insurance.

  • R.Barkey

    In a previous article the amount of water being used is stated as this.
    Speak­ing of water and drilling, just how much fluid goes into each well, and where does it come from? The aver­age well pad uses about 4 mil­lion gal­lons of H2O a day, dur­ing frack­ing operations.All told, the com­mis­sion esti­mates drillers are using about 30 mil­lion gal­lons of water each day, across Pennsylvania.
    I think the commission should go back to math class!
    30 million gallons per day at 4 million per well equals 7.5 wells?
    This article states that there are “DOZENS” of wells and more coming!
    Who’s chain are you yanking?

    • Beenthere Seenthat

      Much of the water “used” in each well is recycled from well to well, site to site. That “4 million” doesn’t go down and stay down. It is used, drawn off [much of it], stored in tanks, and reused in the next bore, etc until the pad is completed. Then it is hauled off to the next frack-site and used there. Well after the frack is done, water continues to be drawn off, stored, and shipped elsewhere for reuse.Also, refigure using the number of well heads actually being fracked on the average day [not total wells out there], and the numbers from the “bad math” start to add up better.Know how much 30 million gallons is? Figure the volume, and see that it is about a good size [20 acre] pond. Considering the running flow of all the major waterways exiting the state per day, that’s not such a large amount. Approx 0.12% [12/100 of 1%]of the average daily output of just the Susquehanna alone. [100 seconds worth].

  • Valerie

    The proper name is “Smokey Bear.” There is no “the” in his name.

  • Raleighmillers

    Are you all drinking the Kool aid?

  • Deanna

    So where is all of this money going anyway?  Apparently it wasn’t enough to prevent Corbett from cutting nearly 1 billion dollars from the state education budget.  Funds have been slashed for libraries and municipalities are having to lay off policemen and firefighters.  The citizens of Pennsylvania don’t seem to be benefitting from this destruction of our lands.  This is an awful polluting industry.  What happens when we all have to add the extra expense of purchasing clean water, buying our food from sources away from this contamination, paying the extra medical bills for our children because they have no pure air to breath and are suffering from asthma?  These costs will dwarf what is being brought in through gas lease revenues.  How can we just sit here and let the gas companies continue to poison our environment and destroy our land?

  • DoryHippauf

    if billions have been truly brought into PA, and there are drilling jobs up the whazoo – why is PA 49th in job creation, why has unemployment gone UP, and why is Corbett cutting education funds in order to give it to the corporations?

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