HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Corbett issued an executive order Friday that allows drillers to extract natural gas from rock buried deep below Pennsylvania’s state forests and parks, while barring drilling-related construction that would disturb the surface of the nearly 2.5 million acres of public lands.
The order authorizes the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to negotiate leases for the gas extraction through horizontal wells drilled from adjacent, privately owned lands or from areas leased for drilling in the state forests by previous administrations.
Corbett announced that he planned to issue the order when he unveiled his 2014-15 state budget plan in February. It rescinded a 2010 order barring any new leases on public lands.
The initial leases are expected to generate $75 million for this year’s budget. The state plans to seek $3,000 per acre in future rents as well as an 18 percent royalty on the sale of the gas, said Patrick Henderson, a senior aide to the Republican governor.
“We announced this three months in advance,” he said.
Henderson said the process of issuing the new leases will start with an exploration company making a proposal to the department, which would conduct case-by-case reviews before entering into an agreement. Permits from the Department of Environmental Protection also are required before any underground drilling could occur under public lands.
Environmentalists and other critics expressed concern and strong opposition.
David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, said the order sets “a horrible precedent.”
“We have made it so easy to drill for natural gas on private land,” Masur said. “It begs the question – is any place off-limits?”
John Hanger, who as state environmental protection secretary under former Gov. Ed Rendell helped write the 2010 order, dismissed the order as a “one-time budget gimmick.”
“Corbett just does not understand that we cannot drill our way to prosperity, and we cannot drill our way to a balanced budget,” said Hanger, who sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination but dropped out of the race before last Tuesday’s primary.
Luzerne County Sen. John Yudichak, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said he has introduced legislation to require the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to hold at least one public hearing before any of the new leases is executed.
Said PennFuture’s president Cindy Dunn: “We need to get the public voice in the room on this.”