With access to Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale acreage at an increasing premium, state officials are scrambling to find out who owns the subsurface rights to nearly 1.7 million acres of state game and park land.

Last week Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) said there is no unleased state forest acreage suitable for natural gas development remaining in the Marcellus Shale area (see Daily GPI, Aug. 16). That accounted for approximately 1.5 million acres of land.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission manages 1.4 million acres of game land and DCNR controls 283,000 acres of park land, but pinpointing who owns the rights to any natural gas, oil or minerals that might be found beneath all of that acreage could take some time, Game Commission spokesman Gerry Feaser told NGI.

"There are some areas where we don't own the rights to the mineral or oil/gas deposits that lie beneath the surface and there are other areas where we do own the subsurface rights, and we'll use them with due discretion," according to Feaser, who said the Game Commission doesn't have an estimate of the number of acres of game land on which it holds mineral rights.

"We've been acquiring land since 1920. Some of it was very clear in the deed transaction, some of it was more vague and some of it was just downright confusing. We're literally pulling out dusty, musty deed books and trying to pull together that picture for ourselves," he said.

Pennsylvania's state game land is public land that has been purchased with hunting license revenue and is primarily used for hunting, trapping and wildlife propagation.

"We own 1.4 million acres of state game land in about 302-305 different blocks, but they were not all purchased contiguous or at once. Many of these game lands are comprised of multiple parcels, so it's not a matter of looking at a state game land that's 10,000 acres in size and looking at one deed transaction. You could have upwards of 100 [transactions]."

DCNR owns the subsurface rights to about 20% of the state park land and prohibits drilling where it can, but it is trying to find out who holds the mineral rights to the rest.

It is possible that subsurface rights owners could allow drilling on Marcellus land, even if the surface owner -- whether an individual, a company or a state agency -- objects, according to Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Rathbun.

"They could do it without their permission, but not without their knowledge," Rathbun said.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) has called for a temporary moratorium on leasing additional forest land for new natural gas development until a comprehensive environmental and community impact assessment can be completed (see Daily GPI, July 14). The state government should work with the gas industry and mineral rights owners to address concerns relating to gas extraction under state park lands, PEC said.

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