Court hears testimony on attempt to halt state forest drilling plan
The state Commonwealth Court heard testimony today on an effort to prevent the Corbett administration from opening up more public park and forest land to natural gas drilling.
As part of a larger lawsuit, the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) is seeking a preliminary injunction to halt additional leasing of public land and the transfer of $117 million from the state Oil and Gas Lease Fund for DCNR’s operating budget.
On Friday, Governor Corbett issued an executive order ending a four-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing of park and forest land in a effort to raise $75 million dollars for this year’s budget.
The administration has called the order a restrictive approach to expanding drilling. It allows companies to extract gas horizontally from wells located on adjacent private land or in areas of state forests where leases already exist.
“We learned very quickly this would be different”
Penn State University forestry professor James Grace was the first witness to testify on behalf of the PEDF.
Grace chairs the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) natural gas advisory committee and served as its Bureau of Forestry director when the gas boom began during the Rendell administration.
At the time, Grace says the department only had experience will shallow, conventional gas extraction and didn’t know how to handle the size and scale of Marcellus Shale development.
“We learned very quickly this would be different from what we experienced in the past,” he said.
He praised the current efforts by DCNR to mitigate adverse impacts from drilling– in particular its recently published Marcellus monitoring report–but he says he doesn’t believe the state should engage in new leasing until the impacts of development are fully understood.
“I’m not opposed drilling for gas on state forest land,” he said. “It’s a question of scale.”
During cross-examination attorney Sean Concannon–who represents Governor Corbett–quizzed Grace on several of the gas leases he signed during his time at DCNR.
Concannon pointed to the extensive list of restrictions the department routinely places on gas companies– including the spacing and location of wellpads, plugging requirements, and land reclamation.
“This lease is intended to be as comprehensive as possible, correct?” said Concannon.
“I’m not going to argue the lease protocols aren’t the best they can be,” Grace replied. “I’m more concerned about the cumulative impacts. There have been accidents and mistakes.”
“The forest was being treated as a cash cow”
Former DCNR Secretary John Quigley testified next, and he did not mince words when it came to his former boss, Governor Ed Rendell.
“The state forest was being treated as a cash cow,” Quigely said of the leasing that took place under Rendell. “That was extraordinarily dangerous and presented an existential threat to the resource.”
He went on to say he was “shocked and angered” in 2009 when the legislature amended the state fiscal code to give the General Assembly control over how royalty money from the state’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund was spent. It had previously been managed by DCNR.
“It was taking away a significant source of revenue from the agency,” he said. “The governor and the General Assembly were coming very close to slaughtering the cash cow.”
Attorneys for Corbett and the Commonwealth did not have time this afternoon to cross-examine Quigely. PEDF is planning to call three more witnesses. The hearing is scheduled to resume on Monday and may continue into Tuesday.
Spokespeople for DCNR and the Governor’s Office of General Counsel both declined to comment on the case.