Rendell appointee: gas leasing on state land was 'knife in the heart'

  • Marie Cusick

Two former Rendell appointees testified in court today about the pressure they felt to lease public land for gas drilling during their time at the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The two former DCNR secretaries– Michael DiBerardinis and John Quigley– testified before the state Commonwealth Court as part of a lawsuit filed by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF). The environmental group is attempting to block the Corbett administration from opening up more public land to gas development.
Former Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, leased about 130,000 acres of state forest land to gas companies, before he instituted a moratorium on future leasing during his last year in office. Last month Corbett lifted the moratorium in an effort to raise $75 million for this year’s budget.
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.
DiBerardinis served as DCNR Secretary from 2003 to 2009. He’s currently Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources.
In the second day of testimony, PEDF attorney John Childe asked DiBerardinis to read portions of a memo he sent to Governor Rendell in March 2009 outlining his concerns about leasing more land.
DiBerardinas said at the time he felt like DCNR was losing control over the state forest system.
“When the department is told it has to generate ‘this much revenue’ or lease ‘this many acres’ you’re taking the management prerogative out of the department,” he said. “It was like a knife in the heart.”
He said the department was trying to balance a number of interests– including conservation, recreation, timber, and energy development.
“We weren’t taking a position that all drilling was bad,” he said. “We wanted an approach that would meet those energy interests but also meet the legislative mission of the agency.”
DiBerardinis left DCNR just as the Marcellus boom was beginning to unfold. His successor, John Quigley, headed the agency until the change in administrations in early 2011.
“The department grossly underestimated the impacts,” he told the court.
Quigley directed DCNR staff to launch a monitoring program to gather data about the impact of gas development in the forests. The department’s first report was published earlier this spring.
The Corbett administration has called the governor’s new executive 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.
The court hearing will continue tomorrow.