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PA DCNR Plans to Buy More Land to Protect Forests Against NatGas Development

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has finalized its latest State Forest Resource Management Plan (SFRMP), releasing with it an oil and gas development position statement that reaffirms no new leases will be sold for state-owned land.

DCNR's Bureau of Forestry manages 2.2 million acres of state forest system, representing about 13% of the state's forested land. About 1.5 million acres of the state-owned forest system lies within the prospective limits of the Marcellus Shale.

The statement supports an executive order issued by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in January 2015 that banned oil and gas leases in state-owned parks and forests (see Shale Daily, Jan. 29, 2015). DCNR said in its new position statement that in order to better conserve the resources that it oversees, the agency will "not permit additional oil and natural gas leases on state forest and park lands where DCNR controls the subsurface rights." The agency highlighted a number of initiatives that it would undertake to better manage oil and gas development.

Among them, DCNR said it would purchase and exchange real estate interests to acquire subsurface oil, gas and mineral rights to limit development on adjoining properties. The agency also said it would require subsurface owners to provide "definitive proof" of subsurface ownership and said it would continue to "closely" manage and monitor oil and gas development and its effects on leased lands and lands where DCNR does not own the subsurface mineral rights. The agency said it will cooperate with natural gas operators on state forest lands, as well.

DCNR spokeswoman Christina Novak said opportunities for purchasing or exchanging subsurface rights are explored on a case-by-case basis that is “subject to finding willing sellers and funding availability.” She said DCNR has added more than 40,000 acres to the state forest system over the last two years through a “variety of subsurface ownership situations.”

The Bureau of Forestry has released the SFRMP since 1955. It serves as a blueprint for how the lands will be managed and communicates the agency's goals to the public. The last time it was revised was in 2007. For the latest plan, DCNR received more than 4,000 comments and hosted 12 public meetings over two years. 

"Management of our state forest system is an ever-changing undertaking, as there are constantly new challenges and best practices. Society continues to place increasing needs on state forest land such as recreational use and resource extraction and the forest also is under environmental stressors including climate change and invasive plants and insects," said DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn in a statement. "The careful and deliberate approach to management outlined in the

plan will help protect and sustain the forest's ecological, social and economic benefits now and for the future." 

Development and gas storage leases issued by DCNR in state forests total 343,915 acres. The agency has also identified another 330,000 acres that, through private leases where the state does not own subsurface rights, are exposed to development. Since 2008, DCNR has issued three shale-gas specific leases totaling 138,866 acres. The last time a shale lease was sold was in 2010.

The state began leasing land for oil and gas development in 1947 and the bonus payments from unconventional leases have generated more revenue than the cumulative total received by the program since it started. Shale bonus and royalty payments have brought in about $862 million.

"We're disappointed, but not surprised in the agency's actions. It shouldn't be lost on anyone that safe, tightly-regulated non-surface taxpayer-owned energy development is an enormous source of revenue for the commonwealth, generating nearly $1 billion since 2008," said Marcellus Shale Coalition spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright. "Rather than pursue policies that restrict responsible natural gas development and jeopardize good-paying jobs, Pennsylvania elected officials should be encouraging greater production, infrastructure development and use of our abundant, clean-burning natural gas resources."

Shale gas development began on state forest lands in 2009. Thus far, DCNR has approved 236 well pads and 1,026 shale wells since 2008.

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