Deal puts hold on new gas leases on state land

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HARRISBURG (AP) – The Corbett administration and an environmental group said Friday they struck a deal that will prevent a loss of funding for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources while the group’s lawsuit seeking to stop natural gas drilling in state-owned parks and forests goes forward.


The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation and Gov. Tom Corbett said the foundation was backing off its pursuit of an injunction to stop new leases and the administration has agreed to not sign any new leases.


The deal is designed to keep in place some $120 million in drilling-generated revenue that is subsidizing the state parks and forests agency’s operations while litigation continues in Commonwealth Court.


“PEDF is bringing their case to support DCNR’s ability to protect our parks and forests, not to shut them down,” said a release from the group’s lawyer, John Childe.


Corbett said the agreement was necessary to avoid what he said would be a decimation of the state’s natural treasures.


“We cannot allow our commitment to protecting Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests to be held hostage during the duration of the lawsuit,” Corbett said.


The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation sued in 2012 to stop the state government from allowing more gas drilling on publicly owned lands and then diverting the drilling proceeds away from a land conservation fund, the Oil and Gas Lease Fund.


Hundreds of millions of dollars have been diverted in recent years to prop up the state’s general operating budget under Republican Corbett and his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell.


Budget legislation signed last week by Corbett establishes the state’s authority to enact a new round of leasing of publicly owned lands for natural gas drilling and authorizes the diversion of another approximately $215 million from the fund into the state government’s operating budget.


Of that, $95 million is supposed to come from new leases, but the agreement puts them on hold while the litigation plays out.


The sides agreed to an expedited court schedule that could result in a ruling by the end of the year. The administration said it would prepare for leasing in the meantime.


Childe said a judge signed off on the agreement on Thursday.


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