As promised, the Corbett administration is rolling back restrictions on leasing Pennsylvania parks and forests for natural gas development.

On Saturday the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rescinded an October 2010 policy requiring well operators to coordinate with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) on an environmental review as part of the DEP well permit application.

The decision brings drillers one step closer to being able to access more public lands over the Marcellus Shale formation.

The review required well operators to identify all surface areas that would be impacted by development (see Shale Daily, Oct. 29, 2010).

Through the review process DCNR would recommend measures to mitigate impacts. The review considered a broad range of topics, including threatened and endangered species habitat, wildlife corridors, water resources, scenic viewsheds, public recreation areas, wetlands and floodplains, high-value tree and regeneration areas, steep slopes, pathways for invasive species, air quality, noise, road placement and construction methods.

At the time former DCNR Secretary John Quigley justified the policy by noting that Pennsylvania does not own the mineral rights to 80% of state park land and 15% of state forest land, and that 60 state parks sit atop the Marcellus Shale formation.

Approximately 700,000 acres of state forest was currently under lease or available for development at the time, but the DCNR previously determined that no unleased forest acreage in Pennsylvania was suitable for drilling (see Daily GPI, Aug. 16, 2010).

The combination essentially shut the door on the possibility of drilling in state parks and forests just days after then-Gov. Ed Rendell officially banned leasing for oil and gas development on land owned and managed by the DCNR, taking 800,000 acres off the table (see Shale Daily, Oct. 27, 2010). Approximately 1.5 million acres of Pennsylvania state forest lands sit atop the Marcellus Shale formation.

Acting DEP Secretary Michael Krancer rescinded the October 2010 policy document on Saturday, in a notice on the Pennsylvania Bulletin, saying it "was not subject to advanced public comment or review" and is "unnecessary and redundant of existing practice."

Soon after being elected to office last November, Gov. Tom Corbett announced plans to gradually reopen state forest lands for drilling (see Shale Daily, Nov. 15, 2010). Corbett opposed the Rendell moratorium but said he didn't plan to open forest lands to drilling immediately or all at once.

Shortly before Corbett took office, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture) and 40 other state organizations asked him to maintain the moratorium, noting that 700,000 acres were already available for natural gas drilling (see Shale Daily, Jan. 13).

State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery and Delaware) introduced legislation in early February that would place a three-year moratorium on leasing state forest lands for natural gas development and require DCNR to study the impacts of potential impact of Marcellus Shale development.