The Corbett administration has agreed to hold off on leasing any more state land for natural gas drilling until a case challenging the practice is settled.
In exchange, the environmental group suing the stateagreed not to challenge the use of state conservation money to fund the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation filed suit to halt all drilling in state forests back in 2012. But when Governor Tom Corbett announced earlier this year his plans to lift a moratorium on new forest leases to fill a budget gap, the Environmental Defense Foundation sought an injunction to halt any new drilling.
The group also asked the courts to prevent the Corbett administration from channeling funds from the state’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the general fund, or cover the budget of DCNR.
Leasing the state’s forests to Marcellus Shale drillers began under the Rendell administration, much to the chagrin of DCNR’s leadership and staff. In 2010, just before Rendell left office, he imposed a moratorium on any new forest leases.
Now Gov. Corbett wants to lease both forests and parks, but says the operations will create no new surface disturbances. The current budget shows $95 million in revenue from future leases.
“Without this settlement, DCNR’s capacity to preserve Pennsylvania’s natural treasures would have been decimated,” Governor Tom Corbett said in a release. “We cannot allow our commitment to protecting Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests to be held hostage during the duration of this lawsuit.”
John Childe, an attorney for the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation, says he agreed to the deal because he didn’t want to leave DCNR penniless during the summer months when the parks and forests get the heaviest usage.
But Childe says he still disagrees that dollars from a fund set up specifically for conservation purposes get diverted to the general fund. And he says that using money from oil and gas leases to fund an agency tasked with protecting the forests sets a dangerous precedent.
“To require DCNR to get its salaries and its expenses from an action that is destructive to the very parks and forests that they’re supposed to protect is to me a very clear conflict of interest.”
Childe says it’s also unconstitutional.
“Because that land being leased is not the Commonwealth’s property. It is the property of the people based on the [state] constitution.”
Oral arguments from both sides on the lawsuit will take place in October.
Read the agreement here: